Thursday 19 September 2019

Irish family on losing son (27) to Sads in Australia: 'The ambulance was with them within seven minutes, but even by that stage he was dead'

Richard Keith with sisters Amanda and Lisa
Richard Keith with sisters Amanda and Lisa
Richard Keith died aged only 27 while living in Australia.

Esther McCarthy

The family of a young man who died of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (Sads) have spoken of their pain at not knowing he was carrying “a ticking time-bomb”.

Richard Keith died aged only 27 while living in Australia.

Only days before, he had told his family he was moving home because he missed seeing his nieces and nephews growing up.

Now the family have embarked on a screening-and-research programme in the hope of finding out more about Sads and how it can be prevented.

“For us, nothing is going to change. What’s happened has happened and we can’t bring Richard back,” said his sister, Amanda.

“But if helping gather information and research can stop this from happening to someone else, then it will have been worth it.”

Richard’s siblings, Amanda and Lisa, and their parents, David and Gwen, faced not only the heartbreaking news of Richard’s sudden death but the fear that they too could be at risk.

Within weeks of his death, doctors advised the family – of Cornafean, Co Cavan – to go for screening as the condition can be genetic.

Richard Keith with sisters Amanda and Lisa
Richard Keith with sisters Amanda and Lisa

News of Richard’s death, in February 2014, came as a huge shock to the family, not least because he had such a healthy lifestyle.

“Lisa and I were away for a few days when my husband rang to say Richard had passed away,” said Amanda.

“One of his closest friends had been contacted by his friends in Perth to say he had died suddenly, but at first we didn’t have any other information.

“It was a terrible shock. He had just turned 27 and was into running, weight-lifting, nutrition and healthy eating.

“He was very interested in his health, and while he liked to go out like anyone his age, he’d really embraced the outdoors lifestyle in Australia.”

Richard had told his family he was coming home for good after two years in Australia. 

“He liked Perth and had a job as a project manager with a construction firm, but Lisa and I both had kids and he said he was coming home to see his nieces and nephews grow up,” said Amanda.

“I think it struck him when he was at home for Christmas and the kids he’d seen when they were tiny babies were now talking to him.

“He said he wanted to come home, and it was apparent to him that he was missing out on a lot.”

Amanda added that neither Richard nor anyone in the family had any notion he was carrying “a ticking time-bomb” in the form of an abnormality in the rhythm of his heart. 

On the night he collapsed, he was in his back garden chatting with colleagues who he had invited over. They immediately tried to resuscitate him, but he never regained consciousness.

“One of his friends was trained in CPR and responded within seconds,” said Amanda.

“The ambulance was with them within seven minutes, but even by that stage he was dead.”

As the family came to terms with their loss, it was initially thought that Richard had suffered a heart attack. However, a post-mortem revealed no damage and showed that his heart and arteries were perfectly healthy. 

“There was nothing wrong with the structure of his heart, it was the electrics of his heart. Even before the coroner’s report was completed, word came through from the coroner’s office – about three days after Richard died – that we should be screened,” said Amanda.

The family went together to The Family Heart Screening Clinic at Dublin’s Mater Hospital to be checked for undiagnosed or inherited heart conditions. 

The clinic offers the service to families who have lost a loved one aged under 35 to Sudden Cardiac Death or Sads and to those who have survived a sudden cardiac arrest.

The clinic will soon begin screening children. As Amanda and Lisa are parents, they are keen to see more children being screened.

“They organised a family screening for us all,” said Amanda. “You have an echo, a stress test where you run on a treadmill to monitor your increased heart rate and a monitor which you wear for 24 hours.” 

She and Lisa have also agreed to another test and supplied Richard’s tissue samples to allow the clinic to carry out more detailed genetic research.

All of the family have tested clear.

“It’s comforting to know when the tests come back that there’s nothing wrong with your heart,” said Amanda. “But it’s frightening to think that there was this time-bomb that none of us knew anything about. 

“Richard was never sick and had no tiredness or any warning signs. It came out of the blue.

“It would be lovely if our experience could help stop this happening to someone else.”

The family now raise funds for the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust, a charity that aims to alleviate the financial challenges facing loved ones who repatriate the remains of relatives who have died in sudden or tragic circumstances abroad.

“We will continue to fundraise in Richard’s memory as we wanted to be able to do something in his name,” said Lisa.

Dr Joe Galvin, consultant cardiologist at the Mater clinic, will be joined at the clinic by paediatric consultant Dr Terry Prendiville this month.

“When you have a family history of sudden cardiac death, you need family screening,” said Dr Galvin.

“By conducting the screening for the whole family in one location there are benefits of shared knowledge and information.

“It also makes decision-making immediate and avoids the need for several clinic appointments for the family.”

The clinic receives no government funding.

Donations can be made online at, by texting Sads to 50300 or calling the office on 01 830 3482.

You can also lend your support by buying heart badges which are on sale nationwide.

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