Irish consultant who overcame a heart condition: 'Learn how to take your pulse and take it regularly'
When consultant Dr Christine McCreary discovered she had heart problems, she took the matter very seriously. Now, she tells Joy Orpen that she is urging people to check their own pulse regularly
Even though she is a medical doctor, Christine McCreary was caught off-guard when she was stricken by a heart condition. And while the consequences could have proved debilitating, she has come out the other end fighting fit.
Christine grew up in Belfast at a time when it wasn't really safe to go into the city centre. "I witnessed some of the unrest," she says, her gentle voice betraying little about those traumatic experiences. In 1978, she moved south to study dentistry at Trinity College Dublin. Having graduated, Christine worked for several years as a dentist, but then decided to return to Trinity to study medicine and, subsequently, to specialise in oral medicine.
"Oral medicine is the speciality of dentistry that is concerned with the oral health care of patients with chronic, recurrent and medically related disorders and their diagnosis, and non-surgical management," she explains. "It sits at the interface between dentistry and medicine."
Christine worked as a consultant at the Dental University Hospital in Dublin until 2002, when she, her husband, and their two children moved even further south (a year later, their third child was born). "We had friends in Cork," she explains. "So, when a job came up, we left Dublin and moved there." Christine, who is currently a senior lecturer and consultant in oral medicine at Cork University Dental School and Hospital, says the whole family loves sailing, swimming and walking.
However, in spite of their busy but healthy lifestyle, Christine ran into a serious problem in the summer of 2015. "My youngest daughter, Rachel, was competing in the All Ireland Coastal Rowing Championships in Waterville, Co Kerry," she explains. "So, I drove there with the children, and we booked into a bed and breakfast."
In the early hours of the following morning, Christine woke up, feeling rotten. In fact, that wasn't the first signal that something was wrong. The previous weekend, while doing a snorkelling course, she had struggled to stay afloat, even though she is a competent swimmer. "It was a huge effort to get back to the pier," she says. "I thought I had inhaled some water into my lungs."
The subsequent incident in Waterville started alarm bells ringing. "I made myself breathe slowly, and tried not to panic," she recalls. "By then, I realised the problem was heart-related." Leaving 12-year old Rachel in the care of rowing friends, Christine headed home, with her other two children. "I felt weak and tired, but I didn't feel ill," she says. The next morning, her doctor ascertained that Christine's heart was beating too fast. She immediately referred her to the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork. There, Christine was given a battery of tests including ECGs, an echocardiogram (echo), chest X-rays and blood work. These revealed that she was suffering from atrial fibrillation (AF).
According to the Irish Heart Foundation, AF causes your heart to beat in a disorganised and irregular way, which can lead to a range of symptoms and potential complications. "While it is not immediately life-threatening, in the same way as some arrhythmias are, it can lead to heart failure or stroke, and so it has potentially serious effects."
Christine was caught off-guard by the diagnosis. "The only noticeable symptoms I'd had were a slightly anxious feeling and some fatigue," she says. "Some people have no symptoms at all, while others may experience a thumping heart."
Once Christine had been diagnosed, she was admitted to the hospital so efforts could be made to get her heart back on an even keel. She remained in hospital for 10 days. "I didn't feel all that ill," she concedes, "but I was constantly in atrial fibrillation, which meant I had very little energy. The cardiologist told me that because AF had probably been present for some time, my heart function was compromised, and so I was not getting enough oxygenated blood around my system."
When Christine went home, she was on medication designed specifically to encourage her heart back into a normal rhythm. But when this failed to produce the desired result, it was decided to re-shock her heart into an acceptable rhythm; this is called cardioversion. "The cardioversion didn't work," she says. "It only lasted a matter of hours, on about three occasions." So Christine was up and down to the Bon Secours, but only as a day patient; until one particular weekend, when she felt so ill, she did have to be admitted. But by then, her medical team had decided she needed a cardiac ablation.
During this complex and exacting procedure, catheters, which have been fed from the groin up into the heart, allow the surgical team to deal with the affected tissue, which usually results in restoring normal rhythm. However, yet again, there was a hiccup. "The first procedure didn't work," explains Christine. "But the second one did, after a subsequent re-shocking." Three months after the incident in Waterville, Christine was restored to good health again. Since then, she has resumed her full-time job, but is more conscious of taking regular exercise, keeping fit and maintaining a healthy weight.
She also agreed to support the Irish Heart Foundation's recent campaign to encourage people to check their pulse twice a day, for two weeks, so they can detect any irregularities and reduce the very real risk of a debilitating stroke or heart failure.
"AF is the most common type of irregular heartbeat," says Dr Angie Brown, medical director of the Irish Heart Foundation. "People with AF are five times more likely to have a stroke. Symptoms may include tiredness, dizziness, palpitations and shortness of breath. However, some people have no symptoms at all. So taking your pulse is an excellent precaution. A normal heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats a minute. You should see your doctor if you have a persistent rate above 120 beats a minute, below 40 beats a minute, if the beat is irregular, or if you're dizzy or breathless."
Christine agrees: "Learn how to take your pulse and take it regularly, so you know what normal feels like," she says. "If you can't feel it, or it feels odd, get it checked."
To learn how to take your pulse, see irishheart.ie/campaigns/feelthepulse, or freephone the Irish Heart Foundation, tel: (1800) 252-550
Sunday Indo Living