Getting help in a heart beat

When he was a top rugby player Frankie Sheahan tried to hide his heart condition, now he’s raising awareness

 

Anyone who has ever played sports competitively knows that feeling when your heart starts beating faster than usual. It’s usually a sign that you’ve got your game on and are giving it your all.

When former Munster and Ireland hooker Frankie Sheahan began to find his heart going like the clappers, however, he started to worry that something was seriously awry.

The rugby player had to retire from the game in 2009 at the age of 32 after a recurrence of a pectoral muscle injury. He was later to discover that he had atrial fibrillation, a common form of abnormal heart rhythm that is a major cause of stroke.

Sheahan is now fronting an Irish Heart Foundation campaign to raise awareness of the condition. But at the time he first became aware of the symptoms of atrial fibrillation, he felt he had no other choice than to keep quiet about it.

“It would have been around 2004 that I first felt there was something not quite right. I might hit a scrum at the height of it and I’d start to feel that I wasn’t able to breathe as well as I should have. It felt like being winded.

“At first, I didn’t take a whole lot of notice but it started happening more often, both on and off the pitch. It sort of crept up on me initially, but then all of a sudden it was causing me fierce problems and a lot of anxiety. “I could be involved in a match and as I’d be jogging out on to the field, my heart would suddenly start going at double the normal rate for a few minutes. I’d hardly be able to move when it would happen. It was a challenge to mask it and I’m not sure I did a great job at doing that. I’d say people might have been looking at me and thinking my fitness wasn’t up to scratch.”

“The irony was that I first became aware of the symptoms shortly after ECG tests done by the fitness coaches at Munster had found that my heart was the fittest of all the players in the team at that time,” said Sheahan.

More than 40,000 people over the age of 50 in Ireland suffer from atrial fibrillation, but as a fit young sportsman, Sheahan had little awareness of the condition. Fearful that he might lose his place in the Munster squad if he drew attention to it, he was afraid to get it checked out.

“The big problem for me was that I was terrified if I let people know it would finish my career, so I kept the head down for longer than I should have before going to see someone about it. I tried to address it by making changes to my diet but that didn’t work at all,” he said.

Sheahan, who was capped 29 times by Ireland during his career, eventually did go to see a specialist and in 2008 underwent a medical procedure known as a catheter ablation. Twelve weeks later, he was back in the Munster squad and played one final season before hanging up his boots when injury forced him to cancel plans to finish his career with the French side, Brive.

Now the managing director of the sports management company, Front Row, and a rugby pundit for RTÉ and Sky, Sheahan still trains regularly, but admits that his experience has made him somewhat wary of the ethos that only when you push yourself to the limit that you succeed.

“I would be a bit more mindful now when I’m training because I think there may be some relationship between how hard I trained and atrial fibrillation. It’s interesting that a lot of other rugby players, such as myself, Marcus Horan, Simon Best and Richardt Strauss have all had heart issues. You also hear of rowers and other sportsmen having had similar issues. It makes me wonder whether the idea that you should continually push yourself in terms of fitness is really such a good idea.”

Looking back, Sheahan considers himself a lucky man, particularly as some people have no symptoms of atrial fibrillation and are only diagnosed at a routine check-up with their doctor.

He hopes that by fronting the Irish Heart Foundation’s awareness campaign, which is intended to encourage people to take their own pulse check regularly, that more people will become aware of the condition.

“It is important to know that there are very good treatments out there for anyone with atrial fibrillation and that you’re not alone.

“Looking back on it the worst part of it all was the anxiety and uncertainty it provoked. It showed me that it is better to deal with this straight away,” he said.


For more information on the Irish Heart Foundation’s atrial fibrillation awareness campaign, which is supported by Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb, visit irishheart.ie

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