Don O Sullivan from Roscarberry in Co Cork knows all about heart disease and the devastating impact it can have.
Not only does the 50 year old see heart attacks and cardiac arrests every day in his job as an Emergency Medical Technician with the National Ambulance Service, but heart disease robbed Don of his parents and older brother, and just last year he came very close to losing his own life from the condition.
Prior to joining the ambulance service, Don worked as a skilled stonemason and bricklayer when he decided on a radical career change at the age of 42 having served for many years as a volunteer with the Civil Defense.
Don’s father died at 57 when Don was a very young child. He recalled being told by a nurse at the hospital when his mother was dying from heart disease at 65, that due to its hereditary nature, he and his three brothers were at high risk of developing heart disease at some stage in their lives.
He said that at the time he was a 26 year old builder who thought he was “invincible” so he continued to smoke and drink heavily. However, the nurse’s words stayed with the young Don and a few years later he stopped smoking, cut out alcohol and worked on improving his diet and exercising more.
“I said now I was definitely safe from heart disease, I would never get it,” he recalled.
Unfortunately, Don was not safe and throughout 2019 at the age of 49 he started to develop a range of worrying symptoms.
An avid long distance walker, Don started to feel shortness of breath, pain in his jaw, pressure in his chest and pain across his shoulder blades at certain points in his walk particularly when walking uphill. These symptoms only lasted a few minutes and then resolved. Don initially put them down to the fact that he was approaching 50 and unfit, or thought that they were related to his breathing. He never once suspected it could he his heart.
“I felt frightened and very vulnerable,"
TICKING TIME BOMB
In mid-December Don decided to contact his GP and was advised he was suffering from angina. He was also referred to the chest pain clinic in Cork University Hospital for a stress test.
Don attended his hospital appointment thinking that he would be done in a few hours and could head into Cork city for some shopping before heading home, the reality however was very different.
In the middle of the stress test he began to get severe chest pain. The test was stopped and on seeing the results the cardiology team rushed Don straight to theatre for an angiogram where he had a stent fitted. It was discovered that Don had a 100 per cent occlusion in one of the arteries in his heart, meaning it was completely blocked, and in the words of one of the doctors, he had been “sailing very close to the wind.”
“I was a ticking time bomb,” Don said.
“I felt frightened and very vulnerable. When you are in the theatre for that length of time and you have a catheter in your heart, every minute of your life is going to go through your head from childhood to adulthood, and what you have done with your life. And also, you would be projecting forward, if I come out of here my life is going to be changed, how changed will it be? Will I be compromised? Will I be able to live a normal life? Will I be able to continue with my career …in that 30 to 45 minutes ….you realise that life is very precious and flimsy and you could lose it at any minute and it needs to be cherished,” Don said.
The next day Don had more tests that showed that he had indeed suffered a heart attack at some stage in the past which had caused scarring to his heart.
" I thought oh my God is this going to be my fate now as well?”
On the 3rd of January Don’s older brother and life-long friend Connie collected him from hospital and supported him through his early recovery.
“He was very good to me called to see me twice a day helped with my recovery….if I needed to go to the doctor he would pick me up, we were great friends,” Don said.
“On the 19th of January I called down to him for a chat and a cup of tea. I left his place about 10.30pm and told him I would call to him in the morning. He said grand I will have the kettle boiled.”
Tragically the brothers would never have that cup of tea, as the next day Don found his older brother dead in his bed. Connie had had a third and this time fatal heart attack. He was just 53.
Connie’s death had a devastating impact on Don.
“I was only getting my head around having heart disease and getting it squared in my own head. Now 17 days after he is dead from heart disease as well. I thought oh my God is this going to be my fate now as well?” Don said.
Don explained that Connie had had his first heart attack at 45 and another at 48. “He didn’t mind himself and he kept smoking.”
Understandably Connie’s death led Don to develop a lot of anxiety and upended his own cardiac recovery journey. He started attending counselling which he said was a great help and support.
Don went back to work with the NAS on the 01st of February just 4 weeks after his stent was fitted and 2 weeks after his brother’s tragic death and said that in hindsight it was too soon.
“The Irish Heart Foundation does invaluable work,"
Just a few weeks later the whole world was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and as an EMT with the NAS, Don and his colleagues were on the front line caring for and transferring Covid positive patients to hospital.
As an EMT and someone living with heart disease, Don was acutely aware that people with cardiovascular disease were at increased risk if they contracted COVID, all of which added to the stress of his already busy job. However, the tips and advice he received from his counselling sessions helped him immensely through this very difficult period.
He said that being a member of the Irish Heart Foundation’s Heart Support Network also proved “invaluable” in his recovery.
“There are a lot like minded people in the group and we all have a lot of similarities and the same anxieties. We are all going along the same journey but some of us are at different stages. Its nice to be part of the group….it helps me,” he said.
Don is a trained CPR instructor and provides invaluable peer support on the Heart Support Network.
As an EMT with the ambulance service he said his heart event had changed how he approaches emergency calls to people who are suffering a heart attack as he knows what its like to be in such a vulnerable and worrying position.
He said his one piece of advice for anyone who has just experienced a heart event was to take their time during recovery,” it takes a long time for the body and mind to recover….it will take a year to get back to normality.”
While he had a healthy lifestyle before his heart event Don has made a number of further lifestyle changes including switching to a vegetarian diet, he is walking every day and taking his prescribed medication religiously.
“ I feel great and I feel more energized,” he said.
He said he would advise men to contact their GP if they noticed any change to their level of fitness, shortness of breath or chest pain to get it checked out.
“It’s better to get checked out and told everything is fine rather than ending up on the table in a Cath lab, or needing a bypass, or worse dead….people think that a heart attack is a crushing pain in the chest and you end up down on the ground, but my symptoms were very mild, they weren’t classic symptoms.”
Finally, he paid huge credit to the cardiology team at CUH and to the Irish Heart Foundation.
“The Irish Heart Foundation does invaluable work. They promote heart health and make people aware of it and how important it so to recognise and deal with any issue. And post event they provide help and reassurance….it’s invaluable for anyone that needs it.”