At the age of 18 Cormac Ryan had a pacemaker fitted, but he is not letting that stop him from taking on the virtual Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle for the Irish Heart Foundation
A keen Gaelic sportsman and talented member of the Dublin minor hurling team, Cormac was just 18 when he began to suffer from fainting and dizzy spells on the pitch.
Despite a number of tests, his condition was initially put down to asthma which he had suffered with since childhood. However, as his symptoms continued he was fitted with a 24-hour Holter monitor, and just hours after leaving the monitor back to the hospital in February 2012, he received an urgent call to present to the Emergency Department immediately.
On arrival at the ED Cormac was admitted to the coronary care unit where he was to stay for two weeks and he underwent a barrage of investigations and tests. It was then that he finally received his diagnosis of Atroventricular or AV Block.
AV Block is a condition where the electrical signals in the heart are disrupted and can cause the heart to skip beats leading to an abnormal heart rhythm which affects the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the body. Cormac learned that in his case his heart was regularly skipping beats and his heart rate was dropping dangerously low at night.
“Afterwards for a year or two I got quite depressed. I wasn’t sleeping and I wasn’t very active,”
Cormac was told that he would need to be fitted with a pacemaker. He was also initially told he would no longer be allowed to participate in contact sports like his beloved hurling and football. For a GAA-obsessed 18 -year-old this was a devastating blow.
It is still unclear what caused Cormac’s heart condition. As sometimes this can be a hereditary condition his entire family underwent screening and none of them were found to be affected therefore experts ruled out a genetic element.
“I was devastated…my first thought was hurling because I was sport obsessed. Generally, with pacemakers contact sport is out of the question,” he said.
Knowing how important sport was to Cormac and the life-altering implications of his passion being taken away, his medical team inserted the pacemaker deeper into his chest wall. He was also provided with a special protective vest to wear so thankfully he could resume hurling and football.
Despite this, however, the whole experience took its toll on the young 18- year-old and he became depressed and withdrawn for a number of years.
“Afterwards for a year or two I got quite depressed. I wasn’t sleeping and I wasn’t very active,” Cormac explained.
He was advised to stop playing GAA for 12 months and after that he started to ease back slowly. He resumed playing hurling for Dublin in the under 21s and for his club Whitehall Colmcilles on Dublin’s northside, and has never looked back.
“It can make you wrap yourself in cotton wool and be very hesitant to do anything, or it can give you a kick in the backside,"
Reflecting on his diagnosis and treatment Cormac said an experience like that at such a young age “can go two ways”.
“It can make you wrap yourself in cotton wool and be very hesitant to do anything, or it can give you a kick in the backside ….for me it was like a wake-up call, like a scare to make you embrace life and make the most of it. Mortality doesn’t really come into your mindset at 18 but it really made me want to embrace life more.”
And Cormac has not just embraced life since he had his pacemaker fitted 9 years ago, he has pushed it to its limits, by organising and participating in a number of grueling and lengthy charity cycles raising thousands of euro for the Irish Heart Foundation and other charities.
“If you listen to all the reasons not to do things you’ll never do anything, there’s always a million and one reasons not to take a leap but nothing good comes from that. Now admittedly, that mindset leads to its own problems because I probably find it hard to relax, but nine years later the pacemaker doesn’t bother me. It’s definitely given me a lot more than it’s taken from me,” he said.
Cormac’s strength, resilience and determination to see his pacemaker as an experience that has benefitted rather than diminished his quality of life is truly inspirational.
“This isn't the end of the world you'll feel shame for a year or two, but it's not really going to hold you back or stop you from doing anything.
Asked why he decided to sign up to the Ring of Kerry Virtual Cycle in aid of the Irish Heart Foundation he said it was because he wanted to thank the charity for all the support he received when he was first diagnosed.
As taking the easy way out is obviously not in his nature, Cormac has committed to finding a 170km course over the hilliest terrain near where he now lives in Cork, in an effort to keep his virtual Ring of Kerry Cycle as true to the challenging original course as possible.
Speaking about his numerous charity cycles the 28-year-old community physiotherapist said he didn’t think he would have done any of it if it wasn’t for his diagnosis.
“As down as I got in the first year or two afterward….it’s definitely made me, maybe just more appreciative and not afraid to do things and challenge myself,” he said.
Asked what he would say to any young person who is struggling to come to terms with a similar cardiac diagnosis, Cormac said it was that although it may seem like the end of the world right now, his pacemaker has not had a major impact on his life. If anything, it has shown him just how precious life is.
“This isn’t the end of the world you’ll feel shame for a year or two, but it’s not really going to hold you back or stop you from doing anything. I wish I had someone to tell me that at the time when I was first diagnosed because it really has never stopped me doing anything,” Cormac added.