My Health Experience: ‘Get checked up: health can change in the blink of an eye’
Regular check-ups can be crucial to staying positive even in the face of daunting challenges to one’s health
Gerry Quinlan: recovering mentally from illnesses “is actually the hardest part of it all”. Photograph: Eric Luke
Gerry Quinlan has always been fairly fit and during his 52 years has completed 10 marathons. But two years ago the Dubliner, who is married to Louise and has three grown-up children, was shocked to discover he had major heart problems. This was followed by a stroke and a diagnosis of severe osteoporosis. Now on daily medication, he urges everyone to keep track of their health and make sure to have regular medical check-ups.
“I have always enjoyed good health and about seven years ago started donating platelets in St James’s Hospital every month; it was my contribution to society.
“But on one occasion, in August 2012, I was told that my blood pressure was too high for them to take platelets. I put this down to the stress of my job in the Department of Finance and didn’t think much more about it until I met my doctor one evening and asked him if he would give me a letter saying I had high blood pressure due to stress.
“He told me to come in for a check-up and sent me for a stress test. Then, because the results of this were not what he would have expected, I was referred to the Beacon for an angiogram, which revealed that the arteries on the left side of my heart were severely blocked. In short, I was a walking time-bomb.
“I was absolutely shocked and was told that I would need to have stents inserted as soon as possible. This was done in September 2012, after which I was put on medication. Thankfully all went well and I got on with my life.
“I was allowed to have a couple of drinks here and there and my diet was very healthy, so it seemed there was nothing to worry about. I even walked the Connemara marathon that April.
“There was no cause for concern and this was confirmed after my six-month check-up in February 2013.
“But one Saturday night a few months later I was out in Temple Bar with a friend when he got called home. So I decided to meet some other friends, as Louise was away and I didn’t want to go home early. But as I was walking I suddenly felt like someone was pulling me down to the ground and I stumbled and fell.
“Passers-by must have assumed I was drunk but I didn’t feel like I had taken one too many, so I got up and carried on. But a few minutes later I felt another strong pulling sensation on the left side and fell over again. This time I was unable to move.
Hospital “A couple of young lads approached me and, while they were cautious at first, I asked them to put me into a sitting position as I thought I might be having a heart attack. I then got them to call my sons (Conor and David) to come and bring me to hospital. I don’t know why I didn’t ask them to call an ambulance, I just wasn’t thinking straight.
“Because it was about midnight when we got to Tallaght hospital, everyone initially thought I’d had too much to drink. But when they realised that wasn’t the case, I was kept in overnight and the following day was sent for a brain scan, which indicated that I’d had a stroke. I really couldn’t believe it; to have had a stroke so soon after the heart problem was a big shock. But once again I felt like I had dodged a bullet and was lucky to be alive. I suffered from paralysis initially and couldn’t stand or move my left leg at all. But with rehabilitation and a change to my medication I made super progress and was ready to go back to work in October 2013.
“However, the week before I returned I was called for another stress test to check how my heart was performing. The specialist was perplexed by the reading, so I was sent for another angiogram.
“None of us was expecting bad results but unfortunately this revealed that the arteries on the right side of my heart were also badly blocked.
“Apparently I had a very aggressive form of heart disease which, despite the medication I was on, had badly affected the other side of my heart; and I would have to have more stents put in.
“The consultant said I had been dealt a really bad hand of cards and he was just as shocked by the angiogram result as I was. But I managed to remain positive as I went in for my second heart procedure 10 days later.
“This went well and my medication was increased and when I got my strength back, I went home and eventually back to work.
“With all the tablets I am on, the very strict diet, exclusion of alcohol and regular exercise, I have been well and my check-up in December 2013 showed nothing untoward.
Osteoporosis scan “But in February 2014
I had some pain in my left foot and mentioned it to my doctor, who sent me for an X-ray, which revealed I had three stress fractures in my toe. As I hadn’t had any knocks or injuries, he sent me for an osteoporosis scan and this unfortunately revealed that I have the condition in both my left and right femur and in my spine.
“I have been told that I can get treatment for it, but at the moment it’s just one thing too many and I have decided to park it for a little while so I can digest the news and recover mentally from my other illnesses. This is actually the hardest part of it all as being positive can be very difficult.
“But with the help of a cardiac support group in Tallaght hospital, and my wonderful wife, family and friends, I am getting there and I would really urge everyone to get checked up regularly, because your health can change in the blink of an eye.
“So, even if it costs a few bob, the satisfaction of getting a clean bill of health is worth every cent.”
In conversation with