Owen O Brien

I never thought I could have a heart condition at my age

When 40-year-old Owen O Brien from Grenagh in Co Cork experienced difficulty breathing at night in June last year, he presumed he had contacted COVID and contacted his GP for advice.

Despite a negative COVID test, Owen’s symptoms persisted so, after carrying out more tests his GP advised him to go to Cork University Hospital immediately.

In CUH after a barrage of tests on his heart including x-rays and an ECG, Owen was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy due to cardiac sarcoidosis.

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle where it becomes stretched and thin and as a result the heart cannot pump blood around the body efficiently.

The diagnosis came as a complete shock to Owen who said he never once thought his symptoms could be related to his heart.

“It was a big shock, a very big shock. I didn’t realise how sick I was until that happened.”

The diagnosis came as a complete shock to Owen

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Owen was told he needed to have an ICD implanted into his heart. An ICD or Implantable Cardiac Defibrillator, is a small device that monitors the rhythm of your heart. When it detects an abnormal rhythm (arrythmia) it works to restore it. It can act like a pacemaker when the heart is beating too fast or too slow, delivering a series of electrical impulses, this is known as “pacing”. It may also deliver a bigger electrical shock to remedy more serious abnormalities, this is known as defibrillation.

After three weeks in CUH Owen was finally discharged and he went about adjusting to life with an ICD.

However, a few weeks later on the 21st of July he was on his way to see some friends when he was suddenly overcome by tiredness and had to lie down on the middle of the road. When he woke up a few minutes later he felt very unwell and that was when his ICD kicked in and delivered its first shock.

He described the feeling of the shock as being “kicked by a horse in the chest.”

Calling out to neighbours for help Owen was brought home where an ambulance took him straight back to CUH. He later learned that his ICD had delivered up to 20 shocks and said this was a very frightening time.

After another week in hospital Owen was discharged on his 40th birthday the 30th of July.

However, like a number of people living with an ICD, Owen was feeling very vulnerable after his experience and was filled with anxiety about experiencing another ICD shock. He was referred to the Irish Heart Foundation for help where he received a number of free counselling sessions.

“They helped me a lot with sleep, I was really tired but I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I was worried it was going to happen again. I was over thinking everything, worried that the ICD was going to go off again. I still get that feeling every day,” he said.

Owen said the counselling was a great support and six months on he is doing well. He is back to work fulltime as a CAD technician, getting daily exercise and he has not experienced any more shocks from his ICD.

“ I know I have an ICD implanted and I know it can go off any time,"

Owen O Brien

Owen said he was very grateful to the Irish Heart Foundation for the counselling and he also paid huge credit to all the staff in the cardiac unit at CUH, especially the heart failure nurses.

He is also very grateful for the support of his partner Mags and family and friends.

For Owen, a diagnosis of a heart condition at the age of just 40 has been a massive shock and he urged everyone to keep an eye on their heart health by going for regular check-ups.

“It not all about fitness you really need to get check-ups. I thought I was fit and healthy. I went from fit and healthy to high risk, people need to keep an eye on their bodies and get check-ups,” he said.

Owen’s message for anyone else who might be going through the same experience was, “to believe in the doctors and believe in the medication.”

“I know I have an ICD implanted and I know it can go off any time and even though the feeling was horrible, if I didn’t have it I wouldn’t be alive today,” he said.

Both Owen and Mags have signed up to do the 5km Love Run this month to raise funds for the Irish Heart Foundation which Owen said was “a way of thanking the Irish Heart Foundation for all its help.”