Thursday 18 January 2018

'Heart screening saved the lives of both my mother and brother'

One in four people will die from heart disease or stroke in Ireland. Our reporter meets the Bowe family, who lost their beloved Michael to a heart condition. They are campaigning for a new screening machine, which they say saved their lives

Damien Bowe, whose brother Michael passed away three years after he had a heart transpant, is supporting the Mater Hospital's Heart Appeal to install a new ECHO heart screening machine. Photo: Brian Gavin Press 22
Damien Bowe, whose brother Michael passed away three years after he had a heart transpant, is supporting the Mater Hospital's Heart Appeal to install a new ECHO heart screening machine. Photo: Brian Gavin Press 22

Áilín Quinlan

When factory operative Michael Bowe consulted his GP about the flu-like symptoms he just couldn't seem to shake, he was a bit surprised to be sent to hospital.

And utterly shocked, when, within two days, he was informed that he needed a heart transplant.

Michael, then just 24, was told that he had cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart becomes enlarged, thick or rigid.

That was in September 2000, and the news sent shock waves across his family.

"It came out of the blue. I don't know if we really took it in that Michael needed a heart transplant. It was not until he was undergoing tests in Dublin that the penny really dropped for us," recalls his brother Damien.

Michael had his much-needed heart transplant in February 2001, but his body rejected his heart, and he died suddenly three years later. It was a terrible shock to a family which had already experienced tragedy in 1998, when Michael's younger sister was killed in a car crash.

Michael's family were later tested for heart problems by the Mater Hospital's Family Heart Screening Clinic.

The clinic checks families of those who have been affected by or who have lost loved ones to cardiac conditions, including Sudden Adult/Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS). Almost 9,000 people have been screened for often hidden and potentially fatal diseases since the clinic opened in 2007 - and this figure includes 60 children as young as eight years of age, who have been screened in the last year at the clinic, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Breda Bowe, Michael's mother, now aged 64, was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy following screening at the clinic, and had a defibrillator fitted.

Michael's younger brother Fintan, now aged 23, was also found to have the condition and is now on medication for it. Damien and his father Pat, however, were given the all-clear, as were Damien's three young sons, Iarlaith aged two, Ruairi five, and six-year-old Patrick, who were screened at the clinic in recent months.

Breda also underwent genetic testing which revealed that she is the gene carrier of the deficiency that leads to cardiomyopathy.

"For us, the screening at the clinic was critical," recalls Damien, from Timahoe, Co Laois, who points out that Fintan is an enthusiastic hurler.

"Without the screening I believe he could have died suddenly of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome because he was completely unaware that he had the condition until he was screened. He's now on medication and attends the clinic for screening every six months.

"My mother had a defibrillator fitted as a result of the screening.

"I believe the screening saved the lives of my mother and brother," says Damien, who adds that knowing their three children have been screened is a massive reassurance to himself and his wife Anne-Marie, a nurse.

The Bowes are fully supportive of this year's Heart Appeal to raise €95,000 for the purchase of a new ECHO machine for the clinic. This technology will provide much clearer images of the heart and lead to better diagnoses of often hidden cardiac problems into the future. The appeal also funds pioneering research into the causes and treatment of the disease, and with one person under the age of 35 passing away from an inherited cardiac condition every week in Ireland, such state-of-the-art screening technology and ongoing, in-depth research is badly needed.

Dr Catherine McGorrian, a cardiologist at the Mater Hospital who has worked with the Family Heart Screening Clinic since 2008, explains: "We screen for a number of different conditions, such as cardiomyopathy which is heart muscle disease.

"The ECHO machine helps us find previously undiagnosed cardiomyopathy problems," she explains. "Our screening is very much aimed at people who are at increased or high risk of heart problems," she said, adding that the ECHO machine currently in operation at the clinic is getting old:

"It has been there since 2009. The New ECHO machines have new tools to allow us to track heart function better and I'd like to offer these to my patients.

"The clinic has definitely made a difference to families from all over Ireland in terms of helping to protect people by identifying previously undiagnosed but treatable conditions, prescribing medication and sometimes using an implantable defibrillator.

"The key with the Family Heart Screening Clinic is that it is accessible," she says, adding that people are referred to the service by their GP, through their consultant while some will contact the clinic directly.

New investment in equipment is critical to ensure that The Family Heart Screening Clinic remains at the cutting edge of technology and supports pioneering research into the causes of a disease that affects young people in their prime, emphasises Dr Joe Galvin, consultant cardiologist. Dr Galvin, who set up the clinic 10 years ago, has been leading the team ever since.

He says: "The clinic has saved many relatives identified as being at high risk of a life-threatening arrhythmia and these have been protected with lifestyle changes, medications or an implantable cardiac defibrillator.

"It has also played a key role in research into SADS and other inherited cardiac conditions, which is crucial if these conditions are to be mapped and their prevalence fully understood in Ireland."

The clinic receives limited Government funding and is dependent on the Mater Foundation and the generosity of the public to purchase new essential equipment and fund research.

So, as Mary Moorhead, chief executive of the Mater Hospital Foundation explains, the service "requires new equipment to allow us to update the service, to continue to test for potentially life-threatening conditions that families might not otherwise have known about and to support research".

"We are appealing to the general public this February, the month of the heart, to lend us their support and help us to raise funds for an ECHO scanner. This will allow us to continue the important screening service into the future and help us prevent the deaths of our young people from SADS. As we have started testing children as young as eight years of age, now more than ever, this new equipment is vital."

* Donations to the Mater Heart Appeal can be made online at, or by calling the office on 01 830 3482. You can also lend your support by selling heart badges in your local area to help reach the fundraising target

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