Cardiac Unrest – Frank McNally gets his heart checked out but keeps running

If you’ve never had an MRI, it’s like being trapped inside a Lambeg drum for 45 minutes on the 12th of July

If you’ve never had an MRI, it’s like being trapped inside a Lambeg drum for 45 minutes on the 12th of July

 

A woman told me recently, in all apparent sincerity, that I had a “very interesting heart”. I wondered if she said that to all the boys. But it was a mixed compliment in any case, because she was a cardiologist, studying my check-up results. On the list of people I ever want to be interesting to, medical professionals are a long way down, just ahead of the guards.

The good news was a resting heart rate of 42 beats a minute: low for my age, thanks to a running habit.

The bad news was that the topography of one of my cardiographs was abnormal.

On a line that should have had a series of hillocks, there was also an unexplained hollow.

It would be prudent to investigate this with an MRI, the doctor said. After that, we might think about an “angiogram”. I wasn’t thrilled about the angiogram.

On the list of things ending in “gram” that I ever want to be on the receiving end of, that’s low down too. When the word was ever mentioned in family medical dispatches, it was never good news.

But speaking of family history, there was nothing in mine to suggest predisposition to heart problems, nor did I have any symptoms.

My bad habits do not include smoking. The running is generally considered a good thing.

Against that, I have rarely lined up for a race, or even a hard training session, without experiencing intimations of mortality, and wondering if today is the day I push my luck too hard.

This is partly the result of being descended from a long line of people who regarded any athletic activity not involving a football with suspicion.  

My late Aunt Mary in particular, who lived to be 90 but always relied on mere work to keep her thin, was mystified that an adult would ever want to run several miles when not being chased by wildlife. “Are ye mad?” she used to ask me, with furrowed brow, appalled that her nephew had such a want in him.

Anyway, the MRI turned out normal.

If you’ve never had one, it’s like being trapped inside a Lambeg drum for 45 minutes on the 12th of July. It’s noisy and claustrophobic, as the machine’s magnets resonate ferociously to produce images of your interior, while a recorded female voice in earphones tells you to breath in, breath out, and hold still. 

There was also a real woman, who injected dye into my arm midway through, and then something to speed my heart up.

“This might feel unpleasant”, she warned of the latter. I didn’t notice anything.

Two days later, we did the angiogram.

Somehow I had assumed they would knock me out for this. Far from it. I was given a sedative they said might feel like “two quick drinks”. But perhaps my social life needs curtailing, because I didn’t notice that either.

Then they made a puncture hole in my right wrist and threaded a wire up the arm towards cardiac central, while I watched the footage, fascinated, on a TV screen. 

And that was it.  

After I’d been thoroughly probed, the doctor told me there was nothing to worry about and I could carry on “doing what you’re doing”.

Mind you, they did tell me to avoid lifting weights for a few days, or anything else that might cause my (now bandaged) wrist to bleed.

And when a nurse realised my job required typing, she even seemed concerned about that.

But I assured her it rarely involved more than two fingers at a time, and that violence was minimal.

I took the doctor at his word meanwhile. Three days later – last Sunday – I lined up for the start of the Raheny 5 Miler, an annual fixture in late January, although naturally this year I was seeing cardiac metaphors everywhere. 

The narrow arteries of the north Dublin suburb were clogged by a build-up of parked cars, and shortly after the start, there was also a traffic infarction – a car stuck in the middle of the road – forcing 4,000 runners on an adrenalin rush into avoidance manoeuvres.

I reminded myself then, if tripped, to fall on my left wrist.

But once out of Raheny’s latin quarter, we could relax.

The race was hard work in the cold and wind.

Even so it was great fun too, up to and including the lung-bursting sprint for home.

I knew I’d put my heart into it when, amid the usual surge of relief after the finish line, I also had a brief urge to throw up.

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