My Health Experience: ‘I could tick every box of risk factors for a heart attack’

Donal Herlihy thought he had severe heartburn so was amazed when he was told he'd had two heart attacks


The funny thing is that I had my heart checked five or six years ago just before I had an MRI to investigate headaches I was having – it turned out I needed glasses – and my heart was fine.

That made me feel okay, even though my own doctor told me I should be checked once or twice a year because my cholesterol was high. I had already started to try to reduce my cholesterol level by cutting out real butter and taking cholesterol-lowering drinks but I continued to smoke and I didn’t exercise.

I started feeling very unwell one weekend in October 2011, after being at a 21st birthday party on Friday night and two 30th birthday parties on Saturday night. I woke up in the middle of Saturday night with extreme chest tightness.

Severe heartburn
I had often suffered from heartburn so I thought it was just an extreme bout of that. I coughed hard and smacked myself on the chest. The pain went away and I fell back to sleep, telling myself I wasn’t going out the next night.

I stayed at home on Sunday, not feeling well. I went to work on Monday, taking indigestion tablets to help ease the pain. I went rehearsing on Monday night – I used to play the drums – and felt horrible.

I went home and couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t lie down. My chest felt like someone was standing on it with all his weight. I couldn’t get comfortable, no matter what way I lay. So I sat up all night.

I phoned work the next morning to say I was sick, and I went to the doctor. I convinced him that I had bad heartburn and he prescribed heartburn medication for three weeks, telling me to come back then.

Over the next three weeks, I had a lot of pain. I had a stingy icy feeling in my breath when I walked. I went to London for the weekend and still felt really bad.

When I came home, I went back to the medical centre and saw another doctor who sent me straight to the Mater hospital for blood tests and an ECG.

While there, I was beginning to panic. I was due to go to Glasgow the next weekend to see a cousin and the doctors were telling me, “We think you’ve had a heart attack. We’d highly recommend that you don’t go and your health insurance won’t cover you if we advise you not to go.”

They scheduled an angiogram for the following Friday morning and said if it was all clear, I could travel.

Angiogram results
I had the angiogram and was in and out of hospital quicker than your car would have an NCT. I got a call that evening to say that I needed a stent put into one of my arteries.

The angiogram also showed that I had had two heart attacks – one on the Saturday night and another on the Monday night.

The operation was scheduled for the following Monday morning. The trip to Glasgow was definitely off.

On the Monday morning, I found myself in a room with two older men and one older woman. One of them had four stents in already. They asked me was I in the wrong room because I was so young.

I was nervous because I had never been in hospital overnight before. I had my last cigarette before going into the Mater hospital that morning.

The surgeon made me feel more relaxed and although I was semiconscious for the operation, I decided not to look at it on the screen beside me while it was being carried out. I did look it up on Google afterwards and saw how tiny – and how expensive – stents are.

I was extremely bruised and sore afterwards. I was out of work for three weeks and only gradually got my strength back by walking a little bit more each day.

Risk factors
I look back now and I see that I could tick every single box of risk factors for having a heart attack. It is in my family. Two of my uncles have had triple bypass surgery, and my parents both have high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

I too have high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I didn’t exercise. I didn’t eat well and was fond of red meat. I started smoking when I was 16 and was on about 20 a day from 18 onwards. I drank about five or six pints on a night out – maybe four nights a week – and Sunday would be a full day’s session watching the football. And when I was drinking I would smoke a lot more too.

Since the operation, I haven’t turned into a health freak but I have made some changes. I drink a little less. I walk home from work most days, which takes about half an hour. I eat a bit more healthily. I always eat breakfast and I bring sandwiches or a salad box into work for lunch. I try not to eat dinner after 8pm. I’ve started to lose some body fat because I do some exercises in the morning before I go to work.

I am on cholesterol-lowering medication and take drugs to lower my blood pressure, an aspirin a day, and beta-blockers to regulate my heart. All my siblings were checked out when they were told I had a heart attack, and my brother stopped smoking.

I was on holidays in Jordan on my own and I went horse-riding and scuba-diving. During both of these activities, I panicked. I spent the next few months trying to come to terms with the anxiety and worried that I would never be back to the person I was before, who was never afraid to try something. At my check-up in January, I asked was it too late to do the cardiac rehabilitation programme, but it wasn’t.

I felt a bit of an idiot at the classes because I was so much younger than all the other people there.

I found the talks on diet, blood pressure and medication extremely useful. What really helped, though, were the one-to-one sessions with a psychologist. I learned about how the body reacts to certain situations and now I listen to mindfulness CDs on the way into work, which helps a lot.

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