Getting more out of life after nearly dying

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

A woman who had a cardiac event says the incident changed her

Limerick woman Sarah McGuire says that coming close to death can change a person, even if those changes aren’t necessarily seismic. She was born with a genetic heart condition that was undiagnosed until she went into cardiac arrest while on a trip to Australia two years ago.

“I am definitely more laid back now, less uptight,” she smiles. “Not everyone who knows me would agree but I do find the things that used to annoy me don’t as much anymore.”

More significantly the experience of almost losing her life provided her with a gnawing sense that she should “give back” more. “I know that talking about what happened may make a difference to others, so for now this is my way of giving back and showing gratitude for the fact that I am alive.”

No indication

Until McGuire went to Australia there was no indication that she was living with a heart abnormality, or at least none that she noticed.

She was sporty as a child and young adult and it’s only looking back that she sees the significance of those times when coming home from a sporting event her heart seemed to be pounding madly in her chest. “I thought it was normal,” she says.

She was fit and healthy when she headed off travelling with her boyfriend, Brian, in March 2011 – first to Thailand and Malaysia before landing in Brisbane looking for work. They planned to stay for a year.

McGuire says she remembers nothing of her ordeal and when she talks about the day she nearly died it’s from information she has been given rather than from her own memories.

Breathing laboured

The couple had been in Australia for five days when she fell ill. They had done job interviews and been given offers that they were planning to accept. That night they went out for dinner and on returning to the hostel in which they were staying, McGuire phoned her mother back home in Limerick.

During the telephone conversation she began to feel unwell, her breathing becoming so laboured that she dropped the phone in the middle of the conversation.

After calling an ambulance from the hostel reception downstairs a medic talked McGuire’s boyfriend through administering cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). After being taken to the Royal Brisbane Hospital she was clinically dead for six minutes before being resuscitated.

Afterwards she suffered stroke-like symptoms such as lack of mobility, diminished speech and the loss of her peripheral vision which still has not returned.

Her memory was also affected. When she came around, she thought she was in Limerick and was worrying about studying for exams that she had completed six years earlier.

Within days of the cardiac arrest she was diagnosed with Long QT syndrome, a condition that interferes with the electrical system of the heart, making the organ too weak to correct itself when it goes into the wrong rhythm. McGuire was fitted for a defibrillator, a monitoring device attached to the heart, and spent several months in rehab learning to walk and communicate properly again.

At the time of the incident her cardiologist in Australia advised that the extended family be screened for the genetic condition.

Died suddenly

McGuire’s 17-year-old cousin, Martina, had died suddenly in her sleep just over 10 years previously, a few days before her Leaving Certificate results came out. It is suspected now that her death was caused by Long QT syndrome. When the family was screened it was discovered that McGuire’s two younger sisters Emma and Joanne and her cousin Mary – Martina’s sister, were also affected.

All three were fitted with defibrillators and continue to live healthy, active lives.

“It’s incredible that in my own immediate family there are four of us with Long QT. If I hadn’t got sick in Australia we would have been oblivious to the danger we were in.

“With the defibrillators we have the security of knowing that if anything happens it will kick in and shock our hearts back into action. We can live normal lives.”

Higher incidence

According to Dr Catherine McGorrian, a consultant cardiologist with the Mater hospital, there are about 40 sudden cardiac deaths of young people each year in Ireland – a higher incidence of sudden adult death syndrome (Sads) under 35 years of age than in other countries.

The fact that there are other young people unaware that they may have a life-threatening condition has motivated McGuire to help raise awareness of the Mater hospital’s free screening programme.

“I just want to encourage people to get screened,” she says. “If there is anything in their family history or any deaths in the family that had no clear explanation, they should just go and get tested.

“There are so many causes of Sads and they are able to test for a lot of them. I hope more people avail of it.”

Before leaving Australia in the summer of 2011, McGuire’s boyfriend proposed and the couple are now back living in Limerick. Apart from the fact that she can’t drive because of her loss of peripheral vision, life continues as normal. “I was in hospital for four months and I had a lot of time to think and get things in perspective,” she says. “Life is good.”


The Mater Heart Appeal raises funds for the Mater hospital’s family heart screening clinic. For more information or to donate visit materfoundation.ie