'My family were called to return to Ireland for their last goodbyes'- Irish mum-of-two's shock heart failure
Elizabeth Lynch got a terrible fright when she contracted a potentially fatal virus. She tells Joy Orpen that if it hadn't been for her astute GP, and a great medical team in Galway, she might not be here today
Elizabeth Lynch knows from personal experience what it means to get a second chance at life. She has also discovered that no matter how ill you become, there is always the possibility you will find your way back to good health.
Elizabeth grew up on Achill island, surrounded by natural beauty, and that no doubt influenced her decision to become an architect. Following her studies, she practised in London, New York, Tanzania and Kenya. She says that working on social housing in Africa was her most meaningful professional experience.
In 1996, Elizabeth returned to Ireland, and, four years later, she opened a practice in Castlebar, Co Mayo. She says homes are her main architectural interest, and she stresses the importance of building houses that can evolve with the ever-changing needs of the family. These days, Elizabeth's main occupation is caring for buildings owned by the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). She is married with two children, who are now 11 and 12 years old.
About a year ago, Elizabeth faced one of the most frightening experiences of her life. It began innocently enough, with her feeling tired. But that wasn't unexpected, her mother had been in hospital, suffering from heart failure, for some time. Then Elizabeth noticed she was occasionally short of breath. So she went to her local medical practice, where asthma was suspected. When she didn't get any better, she returned, and was seen by a different doctor, who immediately diagnosed a problem with her heart. That night, Elizabeth got worse, so she called an ambulance, and was rushed to the local hospital. "They didn't have a cardiologist and couldn't stabilise me," she explains. By now, it had become clear that Elizabeth's life was in danger and that she needed to be rushed to Galway. But medical staff weren't convinced she would survive the journey. An anaesthetist helped assess the situation. "He was quite a funny man," she remembers. "He looked at the X-rays and said, 'If I were you, I'd jump in that ambulance.'" Given that Elizabeth is a 'glass half-full' kind of person, she took his advice and was soon on her way. She says the paramedics monitored her carefully, and were very reassuring. Nonetheless, she was stunned by the reception she got at the hospital in Galway.
"Even though it was the middle of the night, there was a whole cardiac team waiting for me," Elizabeth remembers. She was diagnosed with myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the myocardium, the middle layer of the heart. This is usually caused by a virus. Doctors had to break the devastating news that she was in a "very bad way". There was fluid around her heart, in her lungs and in the lining of other organs. Unbeknown to her, Elizabeth's immediate family was alerted, and began flying back to Ireland to say their "last goodbyes".
She was immediately medicated and learned that if the drugs failed, she could end up on life support, needing transplants. It was a terrifying situation. But when she woke next morning, a medical miracle had occurred. "Unbelievably, the drugs they had given me managed to cause six litres of fluid to leave my body. I said it must be due to the fact that I was so young. But they said, 'No, the last person with this condition ended up on life support, while another one had died'. And both were even younger than me."
Later, when doctors asked her why she hadn't been alerted that something was amiss when she had put on weight (because of the build-up of fluid) she explained she had been so busy attending to her mother, while looking after her children and working, that she hadn't been eating properly. So a little extra weight was to be expected. No doubt Elizabeth's previous healthy lifestyle did stand her in good stead when it came to the crunch. She had always been active, especially during visits to Achill. And if further proof was needed, she was a member of the lifeboat crew on the island. "They check you out medically," Elizabeth explains. "The last thing they want is another distressed person on their hands during an emergency."
The upshot of all this was that, over time, and with excellent medical interventions, permanent damage to her heart was limited to just 10pc of the organ. "I seem to have made a good recovery," she says, smiling broadly. Elizabeth remained in the hospital's cardiac unit for three weeks. During that time, she watched people who were generally a good deal older than her, coming and going. Four days after her own discharge, her much-loved mother passed away. It was an exceedingly emotional time for everyone concerned. "A lot of it has to do with your attitude," says Elizabeth stoically. "I am a practical person. I had a funeral to organise. I did mum's make-up before we laid her out at home in Achill; of course, we had the family helping out too." In spite of all that was going on, Elizabeth's recovery continued to hold firm.
Soon after her ordeal, her cardiologist recommended that Elizabeth should start exercising. And even though she had been used to long, strenuous, beach walks, she was advised to get a treadmill and to start at the beginning again.
"He wanted me to exercise gently at first, and to do so regularly, with no excuses, like the rain," Elizabeth explains. "So I went on DoneDeal and bought myself a treadmill, and like any good woman, I bought the gym gear too." She was also introduced to the Heart Failure Clinic in Galway, and is delighted to have the support and back-up it provides. "As the amount of drugs I am taking are reduced, they are guiding me through the process, explaining how it all works, step by step," says Elizabeth. They're constantly checking what is going on, and monitoring me."
She has the number of the clinic's chief heart-failure nurse in her mobile phone, and is comforted just knowing she can access help at any time. She is also full of praise for her GP, Edward King. "He is brilliant and continues to look after my father and me," she says.
Elizabeth urges everyone to take full responsibility for their health. "It doesn't matter how fit you feel," she says. "There's always the possibility something will get you. So be vigilant. I was lucky, because I had such an astute GP."
For more information about heart failure, see Croi.ie or heartbeat-trust.ie. This is an initiative of the Heart Failure Patient Alliance, a partnership between Croi, the West of Ireland Cardiac Foundation; and the Heartbeat Trust, a national heart-failure charity
Sunday Indo Life Magazine