“I was living on a knife edge and didn’t know it” - RTÉ's Will Leahy
RTÉ radio presenter Will Leahy unexpectedly found himself in a cardiac unit.
He is urging people to take time to check their pulse supporting the Irish Heart Foundation’s Atrial Fibrillation (AF) campaign in November and December 2016.
The father of two, now aged 45, who combines working as a solicitor in a busy Limerick practice with presenting national radio programmes on RTÉ 2fm and RTÉ Gold, was in his thirties when he felt that there was something unusual happening with the rhythm of his heartbeat.
Thousands of people across Ireland today are affected by atrial fibrillation, the most common heart rhythm disorder, but the vast majority are unaware of it and their increased risk of stroke. As the national charity fighting heart disease and stroke, the Irish Heart Foundation is urging people to learn how to check their pulse. This can help detect AF, a condition which greatly increases your risk of stroke.
“For years I had the occasional patter and felt a flutter. I put it down to indigestion and thought nothing more about it,” he explains. “But in the summer of 2010, it wouldn’t go away at all. I was lying in bed at night and could hear my heartbeat. It would come and go. It was quite disorientating. I would hear the normal heartbeat for six or seven seconds, it would stop and then start again,” he explains.
“I went on holidays and it was still concerning me, so I took the simple step of googling where to find an immediate cardiology appointment”.
“It was hard to take in. I couldn’t believe I was a heart patient”
After being put on a monitor, Will’s concerns were confirmed and he was very quickly diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation – a type of irregular heartbeat. “It was hard to take in. Though it was a relief to know what was wrong, I couldn’t believe I was a heart patient”. He was also shocked to realise that he had been in danger of having a stroke.
“Everybody has a pacemaker in their heart that sends out a regular signal to tell it to beat. It usually fires once per second or can be slightly faster. With atrial fibrillation your heart beats in a disorganised and irregular way. When untreated it can have very dangerous consequences”.
Will was put on daily medication and he went ‘back to normal’ for a number of years. However, when his AF began to resurface again a number of years later, Will discussed the treatment options with his consultant and decided to have Catheter Ablation treatment done in November 2012. Catheter ablation is a minimally invasive procedure that tries to find and correct the main cause of atrial fibrillation. “All went well – until the following day. I was unable to sleep and I was still out of rhythm continuously. It was an incredible distraction and discomfort.”
“I am very lucky and very grateful”
Three months later, in February 2013, the procedure was repeated and “it worked completely – I haven’t had an incident since”.
“I had all my family marched to the GP and my parents, who are both in their 70’s and my brothers now have annual ECG’s. AF can present differently. Some people can feel an irregular heartbeat and for some it can be completely silent. It affects different people in different ways”.
“When I hear of people having a stroke now I stop and reflect. If at some point once this week, people would just take their pulse, it could make a huge difference. If they notice anything ususual or it doesn’t feel normal, just make an appointment with the GP”.
“I am very very lucky and very very grateful. I had never, ever thought of checking my pulse previously. I’m glad I paid attention and did”.
Treatment Can Reduce Stroke Risk by 65%
Consultant Cardiologist and Medical Director of the Irish Heart Foundation, Dr Angie Brown points out that “getting to know your pulse is the first step to help detect Atrial Fibrillation, which can then be diagnosed with your doctor. Although AF is generally not life-threatening, it is a serious condition and can lead to serious complications such as stroke and other heart problems. The good news is that greater recognition and treatment of AF can reduce stroke risk by 65%.”
So what should you look out for? “A normal heart rate is between 60 and 100 heartbeats per minute but some people can have heart rates over 100. You should see your doctor if you have a persistent heart rate above 120 beats per minute or below 40 beats per minute or if your pulse feels irregular”. The good news is that AF can be treated with medicines and medical procedures to regulate your heartbeat and reduce the risk of stroke.
8,000 Strokes Every Year
There are about 8,000 strokes in Ireland annually, approximately a third of which are associated with Atrial Fibrillation. Some people have no symptoms of AF and are only diagnosed at a routine check-up, or following a serious event like a stroke. But there can be warning signs and these include palpitations, tiredness, shortness of breath, dizziness or feeling faint.
According to the Irish Heart Foundation, the chance of developing AF can increase if a person has one or more medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease. AF can affect adults of any age, but it is more common as people get older.
Atrial Fibrillation – 5 Key Facts
• 1 in 4 over the age of 50 are at risk of developing AF
• People with AF are 5 times more likely to have a stroke
• AF is the most common type of irregular heart beat
• Symptoms of AF include tiredness, dizziness, palpitations, chest pain and shortness of breath but some people have no noticeable symptoms
• Atrial Fibrillation is also associated with an increased risk of heart failure and impaired cognitive function including dementia
The Irish Heart Foundation’s Atrial Fibrillation Campaign is supported by Pfizer and Bristol Myers Squibb and encourages adults to talk to an Irish Heart Foundation nurse and learn how to take their pulse on Freephone 1800 25 25 50; or go to www.irishheart.ie.