Thursday 12 December 2019

'My heart disease taught me value of slowing down'

Michael McCabe (34) was forced to see a GP when he began coughing and choking and was diagnosed cardiomyopathy.

Michael McCabe (34), who has been diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. Photo: Brian Farrell
Michael McCabe (34), who has been diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. Photo: Brian Farrell

Áilín Quinlan

AT THE height of the boom, Michael McCabe was regularly working 13-hour days, six days a week. During busy peri ods between 2004 and 2007, 100-hour weeks were not uncommon for McCabe, then in his mid-20s, and his crew of floor-layers.

"We were laying floors of all kinds in both domestic and commercial settings, and in hospitals, schools and airports.

"You could be gone at 5am and not home 'til midnight. We were driven by the mantra that then was the time to make money.

"Everyone was doing the same thing, everyone had deadlines; you were always up against deadlines," he recalls.

Stress levels could be high, he recalls; any delays in the earlier stages of the construction of a building generally backed up on to the people who came in at the end – who were usually the floor-layers.

The work was hard and very physical and it was necessary to be fit, says the Westport, Co Mayo, resident.

"You needed to be in good condition because you had to stay on top of the work and it was physically tiring work."

When the recession hit, McCabe was forced to gradually lay off his crew, but he was able to find enough work to keep him going on his own.

Then, in the summer of 2011, he returned to finish off a job at a hotel in Westport.

Two weeks earlier, he'd finished most of the work – it was a big job; 20 bedrooms to floor – and, recalls McCabe, he had been running up and down three flights of stairs without a problem.

But for some reason, when he arrived back to the hotel to carry out some final work, those flights of stairs suddenly posed a challenge.

"I was feeling sluggish. As each day passed, I was feeling slower and heavier, and everything was more of a task.

"Getting up and down the stairs was an issue – I was barely able to carry the toolbox up the stairs without taking a break, whereas previously I would have been running up the stairs with one in each hand. I didn't understand what was going on," he says.

His sleep became disrupted: "At night I found when I was lying down in bed I would feel like I was drowning, or choking – afterwards, I discovered that this was because my lungs were full of fluid and so was my abdomen."

After about a week of this, he consulted his GP. "Initially we thought it was a chest infection, but the antibiotics did not seem to work and the problem didn't go away so I went back.

Michael McCabe (34), who has been diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. Photo: Brian Farrell

"I was still coughing and I'd feel that I was choking when I was lying on my back – it was as if someone was sitting on my chest, squeezing my lungs so I couldn't breathe."

It was felt he may have been suffering from work-related asthma, but an inhaler failed to improve things.

Finally, McCabe was referred to the Galway clinic, where tests showed he had dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle.

The condition primarily affects the heart's main pumping chamber, which becomes enlarged and can't pump blood to the body with as much force as a healthy heart can.

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a common cause of heart failure and may also cause irregular heartbeats, blood clots or sudden death.

"At one stage my heart was about one and a half times the size of what it should have been, and unable to pump properly," he recalls.

"My heart was basically pumping at about 20pc of normal capacity.

"The cardiologist explained the dangers and said it would probably require two weeks in hospital and six off work."

However, the hospital treatment took 10 weeks; and, three years later, he's still not back at work.

"I cannot go back to work even though my symptoms are being managed by the medication.

"My heart is still only working at about 20-30pc capacity," says Michael, now aged 34.

However, of late, he says, things have been improving. "A scan showed significant improvement in my heart function and a reduction in the size of the heart."

Initially when he was discharged from hospital, he had to restrict himself to washing dishes and doing light housework. "I had to take it easy and slow down completely – there was a lot of napping during the day because just being up and about was tiring.

"I'd walk slowly – if I exerted myself I would get dizzy quite quickly."

He has to take around 15 different tablets a day, and has an outpatient check-up twice a year, as well as a consultation with his GP every three or four weeks.

"I cannot do any sort of heavy work, although recently things have improved and I have been feeling fitter and strong. I'm hopeful that I will be back to work at some stage in the future; if there is further improvement I will go back – but maybe not into the kind of work I did before.

"I'm looking at getting a new set of skills. I like working with my hands and being involved in physical labour so I am looking into a few different options."

The time spent at home has been the silver lining in all of this. He gets to see much more of his 10-year-old son and twin seven-year-old daughters. "You get to see the kids, when they come in from school. I am not gone when they get up in the morning, and back after they have gone to bed. I am far more involved in the day-to-day life of the family."

Not only that – he's finally been able to find the time to do the bits and pieces around the house that had been put on the long finger during the busy years – not to mention the odd bit of cooking and gardening.

"I never got into the habit of watching TV in the daytime – I have kept my brain awake!

"I want to pay tribute to the wonderful support I got from family and friends – this is what kept me from going mad!"

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