‘If I hadn’t gone to hospital that day, I might not be here now’

I was getting pains in my chest. I thought this couldn’t be heart problems because I’m too young

Eibhear Byrne: “Everything that has happened since June has been positive.”  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Eibhear Byrne: “Everything that has happened since June has been positive.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Twelve years ago, I took redundancy from The Irish Times and planned to start a new career by going to Ballymaloe Cookery School to train as a chef. However, that never happened. I got married, bought a house and my wife and I had twin boys. I became a stay-at-home dad and drove a taxi at night.

For about eight years, I did 10 to12 hour shifts in the taxi. I ate on the run and didn’t do any regular exercise. I started to put on weight over the years. Between parenting and work, my fitness levels slid and I ate a lot of convenience foods.

I went to the doctor with a chest infection on Thursday, June 5th, this year. I had a cough but I was also getting pains in the centre of my chest, radiating out for about two weeks. I thought this couldn’t be heart problems because I’m too young.

My dad had triple-bypass surgery at 59 and double-bypass surgery at 71. I think he must have had a silent heart attack before his first surgery because the surgeon noticed some damage before the operation. He died of a massive heart attack 11 months ago, at the age of 80. I had figured that I might have to watch myself when I got to my 50s – but not in my 40s.

My GP sent me to the medical assessment unit at St Columcille’s Hospital in Loughlinstown. Everything seemed fine except my blood pressure was very high. I was kept in overnight for a stress test the next day. I lasted four minutes and 11 seconds on the treadmill because the doctor and nurse saw a problem on the electrocardiogram on the screen. I got a slight flutter in the centre of my chest, but they looked more concerned than me.

The following Monday, I was in St Vincent’s Hospital for an angiogram, which revealed a 90 per cent blockage in my left anterior descending artery. It’s called the “widow maker” because the risks of a heart attack are so high when that artery is blocked.

There was no ER moment or anything in my case, but the surgeon did an angioplasty and put in a stent straight after the angiogram. I was awake throughout the surgery and could have watched it all on a screen beside me, but I didn’t. It was all finished in about 35 minutes and I was sent home the next day with my prescription for drugs.

Overwhelmed

At first, I was a bit overwhelmed by all the drugs but now it’s part of my routine. I took a couple of days’ rest after the surgery and my wife took time off work to look after the children. Then, on my GP’s advice, I took it easy for about a month, while the boys were still at school. I went back to driving the taxi in July and I do only eight-hour shifts now. The flexibility of driving a taxi means I can still look after the boys during the day while my wife works.

I started the cardiac rehabilitation programme in August; it involves going to St Vincent’s Hospital two mornings a week. There are 11 of us – nine men and two women – on the programme, and I’m the second youngest. We wear heart monitors during the exercises and our aim is to put our hearts through their paces. There is a four-minute warm-up, six different exercises and then a four-minute cool down, all under the supervision of a physiotherapist and a cardiac nurse.

Basically, we have to keep our heart at a certain speed throughout the exercises – whether it’s the treadmill, the bicycle, the rower or lunges. I always feel great afterwards whereas in the past, I would have felt my breathing very laboured after exercise.

There are also talks at the cardiac rehabilitation classes that are very informative and help guide us towards a healthier lifestyle to reduce the possibility of more heart disease. Topics have included eating for a healthy heart, exercise and health, cardiac drugs, cholesterol, chest pain management and building up a home exercise programme. We are also encouraged to take plenty of exercise outside the classes.

No damage

Overall, I feel very lucky. My GP told me that if I hadn’t gone to hospital that day, I might not be here now. I feel my dad was looking out for me because incredibly the man next to my bed in St Columcille’s hospital and the man across from me in St Vincent’s hospital both had the same name as him: Patrick Byrne.

Everything that has happened since June has been positive. There was no damage done to my heart. I’m in better shape now than I was. The doctors, nurses and the cardiac rehabilitation programme have all been fantastic. It’s all up to me now. I have to watch my diet, keep doing my exercises and live a lifestyle that goes with keeping your heart healthy.

In conversation with Sylvia Thompson