Celebrity chef Neven Maguire is no stranger to emotion, but last year was a particular roller-coaster for him. He was devastated when his beloved mother passed away at the end of the year and a few months previously he experienced incredible joy when his wife Amelda gave birth to their twins Connor and Lucia.
But shortly after the delivery, 37-year-old Amelda suffered heart failure and nearly died. The easy-going chef was thrown into turmoil and as the Irish Heart Foundation launches its Happy Heart Appeal, the Cavan-man recalls the day he nearly lost his wife.
"I was devastated and totally freaked out when I heard what was wrong with Amelda," he admits. "But I had to be focused and upbeat when I was with her, because I couldn't let her worry about me as well as everything else and although I don't normally cry very easily, I found myself crying when I left the room as I hated her having to go through so much.
"I was never so shocked or so low in my life. I had to be strong for my wife and not let her see how worried I was.
"We had gone from the huge excitement of our beautiful babies being born, to their mother being moved to the coronary care unit – it was a rollercoaster of emotions. And I know she was terrified, but she never complained about anything – all she was worried about was how the babies would be cared for.
"She was such an inspiration to me – she took everything in her stride although she was really weak and missed the babies terribly. But it was good for me to learn the ropes, though. I was up and down to the baby unit all day long changing, feeding and bathing. The midwives told me they were very impressed and I'm telling myself that they don't just say that to everyone."
Luckily for Neven and Amelda, she made a complete recovery (from what she later discovered was cardiomyopathy) and although they endured a shocking experience, her condition can affect one in every 1,500 pregnant women.
Medical secretary Irene Lawlor, from Donabate, Co Dublin, also suffers from cardiomyopathy and had to be resuscitated on several occasions while pregnant with her six-year-old daughter Eva (who has two sisters Rebecca, 12 and Robyn, 9).
"When I was 17 years old, I started to suffer from palpitations and began to feel weak," recalls the 44-year-old. "Within a few weeks I collapsed in school and became very ill with chest pain and vomiting, so was brought to Blanchardstown hospital.
"Doctors were unsure of what it was I actually had. They thought it might be myocarditis (infection of the heart muscle) or pericarditis (inflammation of the membrane around the heart). I was in hospital for three weeks and recovered well.
"But I started to slow down when I first became pregnant in 2000. I started to have arrhythmias, and had investigations where it was mentioned that I may have electrical problems with my heart, so I was put on a beta-blocker and continued on as normal. There was no formal diagnosis at this stage and after the birth, I was still tired but I thought that was to be expected.
"In 2003, Robyn was born and one evening she had a febrile convulsion. It gave me an awful shock and when my husband (Brendan) was driving us to Temple Street, I had terrible chest pains and began to vomit. So when Robyn was sent home from hospital, I ended up in Beaumont for an ECG and was then sent to a cardiologist in the Mater who specialised in electrical problems." Although Irene had several heart scares over the years, by her own admission, she didn't take it too seriously and it was only during her third pregnancy that things took a turn for the worst.
"I was due to have more investigations, but I fell through the loop as I didn't take it seriously," she admits.
"But on my third pregnancy all that began to change. I was constantly exhausted but continued to push myself, with children, work, housework and hobbies. I lived on coffee and sugar and never slept through the night yet I put all this down to motherhood.
"But when I was about 15 weeks pregnant, my heart went into an arrhythmia and I passed out. When I awoke, I was being loaded into an ambulance and taken to the Mater. The arrhythmias had changed in nature and were much stronger, like a hammer on my chest and they were a lot faster. This time they weren't stopping and the pain in my chest, neck and head became unbearable.
"My blood pressure was getting low and with that comes vomiting. I was unconscious and eventually I woke gagging and pulled a tube from my throat. A nurse soothed me and told me I was a lucky woman, that my heart had stopped and I had to be resuscitated. She said 'you were nearly at the pearly gates'.
"I was in awful pain. Nobody could touch me, my body was sore from the electric shocks. My tongue was swollen where I had bitten it and I had burn marks on my chest. It was the first time I started to take it seriously and was given the diagnosis of cardiomyopathy."
After her baby was checked out and her heartbeat returned to normal, Irene was discharged. But a few months later, she suffered another heart failure.
"It all happened again," she says. "I was at home and my husband drove as fast as he could to the Mater. My fingers and toes were going purple, I was getting weaker and again doctors couldn't slow my heart rate down. The pain was the same.
"Then I felt some relief and I thought 'Thank God', but this was actually my heart stopping. So doctors had no option but to shock me while I was awake. It was a horrific experience and one I would unfortunately have to endure again.
"I was put on a very strong drug and felt I just had to get up and get on with things, so I hired an au pair to help with the children. Eva was born by C-section and I recovered in the high dependency unit. Three months later, I was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, which over the following two years would shock my heart back into its normal rhythm on seven occasions, once three times in two minutes, and on one occasion I was thrown around the floor like a rag doll.
"I was brought into the Cat Lab in the Mater on two different occasions to have a cardiac ablation, a procedure whereby they insert a catheter up through your vein into your heart to trigger the arrhythmia. When they find it, they try to sear away the piece of heart tissue that is causing the arrhythmia. However, on both occasions my heart rate was too fast and it was deemed too dangerous, so it was abandoned. On both of these occasions, my heart was shocked back into its normal rhythm but as the drugs were wearing off, I felt it all again."
The effect of these shocking episodes took their toll on Irene and she found herself depressed by her newly diagnosed condition.
"Before all of this happened, I didn't realise how determined I was as a person and found it hard to accept that I had a heart condition", she reveals. "I tried initially to get exercise and fight it, but, unfortunately, I just couldn't take it any more and was forced into slowing down. There is only so much pain a person can endure. This led me into depression and a negative state of mind. My life was over. I couldn't climb a hill, walk and talk at the same time. I couldn't stay up late and put in a semi-normal day. I had to have naps during the day and get help with the housework. I was a bore, an invalid and a hindrance to my husband and family.
"But having wonderful emotional support from my husband, I came to realise that my children need me and continuing to feel sorry for myself was going to get me nowhere. It was then I knew I had to change. My negative thoughts were killing me."
So after all she had been through, the mother-of-three finally came to terms with her condition after undergoing counselling, therapies and learning to mediate. She also put her thoughts into words and last year wrote a novel (Discovering Ireland) about a young woman looking for happiness as she tours around the country.
"I now avoid stress and any person who has a negative effect on me," she admits. "I get help with the housework and don't feel guilty about it. I set out early to appointments so I don't have to rush. I don't take on any commitments other than the ones I have to. And as soon as I feel tired, I have a nap, then get back up and continue later.
"I now listen to my heart because it tells me what I am allowed to do and I obey it, after all it has worked hard to keep me alive and I owe it some respect. I enjoy life more now that I am not rushing through it. I value things like a hug from my child and spending quality time with my family.
And slowing down had another advantage; it allowed me the quiet time to discover writing. My aunt suggested during my illness that I try writing as a means of self-expression. I ignored her because I was too angry at the time and thought it was ridiculous as I had never written anything before. But in 2009, I started to write a story and it became a novel. In 2012, I self-published Discovering Ireland and it's now in Dubray, Easons and Amazon. I always wanted to create something that was my own and my illness allowed me to do that.
"It took my mind completely off my problems and I became excited when the book actually started to take shape. It was the final therapy and I'm improving all the time.
"It's been a long road. I still feel sad at times, when I see people doing things that I cannot do, but then I think of something positive and know that the feeling will pass."
> This year marks the 24th Happy Heart Appeal to raise funds for the support services including the National Heart and Stroke Helpline and support groups for people with cardiomyopathy. The Irish Heart Foundation relies on charitable donations for 93pc of its income. So, please donate this May by texting HEART to 50300 to give €2 or donate whatever you can online.
To donate online, go to www.irishheart.ie For more about Neven Maguire visit www.macneanrestaurant.com