Health Experience: my hen’s teeth tumour
A routine heart scan for Padraic O’Maille led to surgery, major infection, 69 nights in hospital and a new work-life balance
Padraic O’Maille in Galway: discovered he had a calcified atrial tumour, which could have been there since birth or even before, and was extremely rare. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Until May 2014, I had never been in hospital except as a visitor. Renowned for my energy and in great shape, I was running seven miles a day and travelling the country doing five presentations a week about business and personal development.
Then, in the space of six months, I survived three life-threatening episodes, saw 12 consultants, had dozens of blood tests, underwent numerous scans, X-rays and MRIs and spent 69 nights in hospital on industrial-strength antibiotics. And along the way, I had open-heart surgery.
If I had received €1 for every time I heard a consultant describe my condition being “as rare as hen’s teeth”, I’d be wealthy. A cerebral member of the species, Galway urologist Paddy O’Malley, called it “as rare as rocking horse s**t”, a saying that apparently originates in Co Kerry.
My dad died of coronary heart disease at the age of 56, before I was born, so I decided to go for a full health screen when I turned 50. All the tests came back clear, including an angiogram, but the cardiologist suggested that I have a cardiac MRI to be safe.
The MRI revealed a problem with the left ventricle of my heart known as a non-compaction issue. This was not too serious, thankfully, but the scan had also found evidence of a mass on my right atrium which was tantamount to cancer in my heart. I was booked in for a transoesophageal echocardiogram (TOE) to get a closer look at my heart.
It turned out that I had a calcified atrial tumour, which could have been there since birth or even before, and was extremely rare. The surgeon had never seen one before but he assured me that most tumours of the heart were benign. However, a very good client of mine had died of a tumour of the right atrium, so while psychologically I knew the odds were with me, I also knew it could be malignant and potentially fatal. And so I had the open-heart surgery.
After the operation, I could barely walk 30 yards down the hospital corridor but with the help of a wonderful physiotherapist, I built myself back up and within six weeks I was back running three miles on the flaggy shore. My tumour was not malignant, thankfully, but it still had to come out as there was a danger that it could fall off and cause a clot.
Just as I was starting to recover, I developed an infection like a very bad flu. I was in severe pain, feverish and weak as a kitten. I had been told I could have aches and pains after the surgery as my heart was out of my body for 22 minutes but my wife, Ann, became very concerned seven weeks after the surgery when my temperature went through the roof.
I was taken back into hospital, and for 10 to 12 weeks the infection came and went. There were countless blood samples taken and endless scans and MRIs, but to this day my doctors have not been able to identify what it was. They thought the infection was probably related to my surgery, but none of my blood tests indicated this. It was like some kind of weird ghost infection.
I spent 69 nights in hospital on intravenous vancomycin, a toxic antibiotic, but unfortunately when I came off it, the infection came back again. One day I begged to be allowed out to visit my mother and this was agreed on the grounds that I stay indoors and not get cold. I drove like the clappers to Black Head with my two sons in a car full of fishing gear and, within the hour, we were casting spinners into the deep waters of Galway Bay. When the hospital rang me to tell me my creatinine levels had gone through the roof, I said I was in the hairdressers with my mother, who was having her colour done, and would be back in a couple of hours.
Another day, I was invited to an awards ceremony in Dublin that evening. My vital signs were all over the shop and my energy levels were on the floor but I decided to say yes to the moment and to the universe, and to deal with the consequences if they emerged. My hospital wristband and the large cannula attached to my arm with six inches of tubing hanging out of it were quite a party piece. It was 2.30am when I got back to the hospital and I had to get security to let me in.
In November, the infection disappeared suddenly, after four months, and it took me another few months to get my energy back. The only thing I could do was write my blog, which gave me a sense of purpose and helped me to cope with the guilt of not working when I was used to working so hard.
As I am self-employed, my income dried up over the six months I was out of work, and that was a real worry. I remember feeling very down one day in hospital and I thought how useful a book would be to help people in my situation. I was lucky that Ann and my kids hung around me like a rash, but during my weeks in hospital, I slept beside people who never had one visitor.
I decided to write a book of useful strategies to help people get back on their feet, regain their health and confidence and reinvent themselves after serious illness. I would like to see this book end up in hospitals as a companion for lonely people. The book is called Rocking Horse S**t.
I have reorganised my working life from having given presentations five days a week to doing much more work online. I have reduced my travel by 40 hours a week, work from home in a most idyllic setting and can effectively command the same salary working 25 hours a week as I made working 80-hour weeks.
I have always preached to people at my seminars to get a full head-to-toe health check. Two clients of mine lost their 28-year-old son to a heart condition a year ago and I will never forget the woman telling me at her son’s funeral to keep promoting that message because a simple blood test could have saved his life.
The majority of people who get a health check are perfectly okay, but if you are not, the earlier you are diagnosed, the better your chances.
In conversation with Michelle McDonagh