An MLA, who underwent heart surgery a year ago, is joining local charity Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke in urging others to look out for the symptoms of heart disease. Cathal Boylan MLA for Newry and Armagh underwent a quadruple bypass in June 2015 and now says that he is one of the lucky ones and has been given a second chance.
Cathal Boylan became a Sinn Fein MLA in 2007 but soon found that the long hours, associated eating habits, the functions he attended and an office based job made him gain weight – the “Stormont Stone” as he jokingly calls it. So in 2013 he decided to lose weight. He watched his diet and started walking 3 miles every day, usually around his home town of Keady but sometimes also around the grounds of Stormont. He lost 1.5 stones.
In March 2014, he was out on his daily walk, a loop around Keady, when he felt a burning sensation in his chest. He describes it as feeling different from heartburn as it didn’t seem to come from his stomach up. It felt like it started higher. He was already booked in for a regular appointment with his GP, so discussed it with him and was immediately sent for an ECG.
That ECG marked the start of six months of tests, culminating in an angiogram at Craigavon Hospital. The cardiologist had seemed jovial as he began the test but when he took Cathal back out for the results, his expression changed. “I have some news for you,” he said, “I recommend surgery – a triple heart bypass.”
Cathal explains, “He told me that stents would not be enough as they could be ‘putting them in for years’. At that point, I wanted some time alone to think about it all and let it sink in. I didn’t feel sick but all of a sudden I was facing the fact that I was very sick indeed. I had never thought of myself as unhealthy. I had lost weight and started exercising. I had given up smoking in my 20s. However, my mum had had high blood pressure and high cholesterol and my dad had heart problems, though that was in his 60s, older than I was.
“I sat alone, thinking for a while, and then I started to write bullet points for a speech that I had to make that evening. It was the day of the Sinn Fein convention and I was seeking nomination for re-election. I still had a job to do”
Cathal joined the waiting list for surgery. He used the time to prepare himself for the major surgery, both physically and mentally. He continued to walk every day and watched his diet so by the time of the operation his fitness levels were very good.
The operation took 8.5 hours. The surgeons did the triple bypass but were not completely happy with Cathal’s heart so did a fourth bypass. He was in hospital for 10 days and took 14 weeks off work, going back to his offices a few days at a time. His level of fitness helped him to make a good recovery. Though he was very tired, he was walking again soon after leaving hospital, and one year on walking is still part of his daily routine.
Cathal wants to tell people not to ignore the symptoms. He was very lucky that he was given a warning sign and went to his GP. His arteries were so blocked that at any time he could have had a heart attack with a much worse outcome.
He also advises people to look at their work-life balance. Asked if he would have done anything differently, he commented, “I would have tried to be better at combining my job and a healthy diet. The work life balance is so important. No matter what your job, it is important to somehow build exercise into your day and eat healthily. Using your job as an excuse is understandable and easy – lots of people do it. But your health is so much more important. I have been given a second chance. My message to others is to make the most of your ‘first chance’.”
Fidelma Carter, Public Health Director at NI Chest Heart & Stroke, said: “It is important to know the warning signs of a heart attack, and to take action like Cathal did. Every minute that passes can mean the difference between life and death. That is why NICHS has launched its STOP campaign in an effort to save lives. STOP is an acronym for:
S – Something’s not right – symptoms can start slowly
T – Tightness or pain in the chest, pain in the arm, neck or jaw
O – Other symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea or sweating
P – Phone 999 immediately – the ambulance crew will do an ECG
More information on the symptoms of heart attack can be found on the NICHS web site and how to keep healthy www.nichs.org.uk/heart.