When Donal Herlihy had a heart attack at the age of 34, he was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, drinking five or six pints two nights a week, he had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and wasn’t exercising.
But as he says himself now, it can happen to anyone – prevention is your best defence.
Donal recalls: “My diet wasn’t great; I might stop off at the chipper on the way home after a night out. I am more of a vegetable eater now but back then I wasn’t. I pretty much ticked every box on the leaflet for signs of a heart attack.”
“I was aware I had high cholesterol and I was trying to get that down. It was nearly at nine at one stage and I got it down to around seven. I was trying to do a little bit of exercise but really I gave it up.”
After a “rough weekend”
Donal’s heart attack happened following what he describes as a “rough weekend” that involved a 21st party on the Friday and two 30th parties on the Saturday.
“I woke up about three in the morning with chest pains, which I put down to heartburn, after all the finger food I’d been eating over the past two days, a lot of cocktail sausages, a lot of spicy wedges, plus all the beer mixed in together. I did feel like there was an awful weight on my chest; every time I lay down, I felt like there was someone standing on my chest.”
By Monday night, even though he really didn’t feel up to it and felt ill throughout, he went to his band’s rehearsal where he played drums.
Felt this weight on his chest, thinking it was heartburn.
“On Monday night again I woke up with this weight on my chest, so I sat up all night. I went to the GP on Tuesday, not my usual doctor and I convinced him that all I needed was some heartburn tablets. So for three weeks, I was not able to walk from here to the corner without getting an icy feeling in my throat, it was sore to breathe.”
Despite this, Donal decided that he would finish the course of tablets, never suspecting it could be a heart problem. He went on a trip to London, going to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea versus Arsenal. “I was a walking time bomb now that I think about it because the tension in that match was so great!”
On his return to Dublin he went back to his regular GP.
“I told him what had happened over the past three weeks, and he sent me straight away down to the Mater. I went in and got an ECG and a couple of blood tests – I was there for hours. I couldn’t imagine what was keeping them.
“The doctor eventually came in and said, ‘from what we’ve done, we’re not 100 percent sure what’s wrong, so the only thing to do now is an angiogram’ I didn’t have a clue what that was. The doctor said ‘we think you might have had a heart attack.’ The colour drained out of me.”
Scheduled in for an Angiogram
The angiogram was scheduled for Friday morning – an angiogram is a test to see if the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart, are flowing freely. A tube was placed into the blood vessel near his wrist, which carried dye directly to the blood vessels of his heart. Donal was semi-conscious for this and was amazed at how quickly it was over – he was home that evening.
The results and need for a stent
After the angiogram, the doctor rang to say that Donal needed to have a stent put in the coronary arteries on Monday. It turned out that Donal had actually had two heart attacks – one on the Saturday night and one on the Monday night.
Cigarettes and lifestyle
He eased off the cigarettes over the weekend. He had his last one ever before he went in to have the stent inserted. Donal was “half the age” of everyone else on his ward and they all lectured him about his lifestyle. His doctor also put him on tablets, including statins for his cholesterol, aspirin to thin the blood, and beta blockers to regulate his heart.
Recovery and exercise
“The day after the stent was put in, my chest felt like I had been doing press ups all day. I was out of work for three weeks. I found it hard to walk and as I had a lot of bruising I didn’t overdo it. I’d go just once around the block in the morning. As the days and weeks went on, I would do one block and the next block, and the loop was getting bigger.
Three months later…
“After three months, I went back to see my doctor in the Mater and he was very happy with how everything was looking. He suggested cardiac rehabilitation, a recovery programme after a heart attack, but I thought ‘I’m young enough, I don’t need it,’ so I didn’t take him up on it.”
A year later, Donal went back for another check-up. His doctor was happy to hear that he was still off the cigarettes, had improved his diet, was losing weight and was being more active. His doctor sent him off, telling him ‘hopefully I’ll never see you again’.
Coping mentally and importance of cardiac rehabilitation
However, Donal found that he was still struggling mentally with his condition. He found on holidays that he was having panic attacks when he tried to do activities like horse riding and scuba diving.
“I thought. ‘I’m on my own out here and if something happens to me, no one out here knows I have this condition, what’s going to happen?’”
“I went back to the doctor and asked him whether it was too late to do the cardiac rehab. I wanted to know if there was any mental side to having a heart attack. They arranged for me to do cardiac rehab in the Mater and they convinced me to do a bit of the physical activity and dietary education as well.
“The psychologist helps you deal with stress and they arranged for me to see him separately after the rehab was over. I found it a great help.”
Donal advises other people to go for regular cholesterol and blood pressure checks and to improve your lifestyle. “It can happen to anyone, no matter what their age. Prevention is the best form of health care.”
What’s your best defence?
If you would like to find out ways of reducing your risk factors, please take a minute or two to read our articles Your Heart Health Information and go and get your cholesterol and blood pressure levels checked – ideally make an appointment with your doctor today or call in to your local pharmacist.
Don’t wait till it’s too late.