“In February 2016, my wife Anne and I went to the Fairyhouse races with a group of 30 friends. The weekend was memorable, though not for the racing. It was memorable because I had a massive heart attack, aged 52, and am lucky to be alive.
“In the run up to my heart attack, I’d not been feeling right. I’d had a persistent cough in the run up to Christmas and eventually went to the doctor with it. Two days before my heart attack, on the Thursday, my GP diagnosed me with high cholesterol. High cholesterol starts at 5.0 and mine was 9.0, so the GP immediately put me on statins.
“This might sound daft but I genuinely had no idea that this meant I was a candidate for a heart attack. Even when I collapsed in front of her, Anne says she still didn’t link it to my high cholesterol.
“On the Friday night, I woke with wild wind. It didn’t feel like pain. It felt like wind. I had been out playing poker. I’d not felt great so had nothing to drink and only one chicken tikka sandwich, which I blamed for the indigestion.
“The next day on the way to the races, I felt nauseous and Anne says I looked pale. I’m not a great traveller so this wasn’t unusual, and I had to sit at the front of the bus. When we arrived I tried to be sick but couldn’t.
“I put my first bet on and then we all went for our meal. I ordered my food and sat down. I decided not to order a drink, but to wait until my stomach settled.
“The next thing, I fell off my seat, unconscious onto the floor.”
Sean’s wife Anne takes up the story….
“Sean collapsed there beside me. I yelled for help. Never for one minute did I think it was a heart attack.
“A guy came over and started CPR. He saved Sean’s life. Our niece, who is a nurse, was also there helping keep him alive and then the Order of Malta arrived with a defibrillator.
“As they worked, all I could hear was “Step away from the patient. Step away from the patient.” Sean was resuscitated twice before being taken to the Mater Hospital in Dublin.”
“My world was turned upside down. I was standing there, watching my husband being kept alive and it was surreal. At one point, I turned to my sister-in-law and said ‘he’s gone’. I really thought I had lost him.”
Sean knows he is a lucky man. “My arteries were in a mess and I had seven stents put in.
“The consultant said my main artery looked like the artery of a man who had smoked for 40 years. I’ve never smoked so instead the consultant said it had to be hereditary.
“My father died of a heart attack at the same age – 52. He’d been a smoker and, being a lorry driver, hadn’t the healthiest lifestyle. At the time, the family put his death down to this, but it is very likely that he also had high cholesterol.
“I am the youngest of 11 and all my family went to have their cholesterol checked afterwards and we found that we all have a tendency towards high cholesterol. Most of the family are now on statins. Even our 21 year old son has cholesterol that is higher than it should be for his age. We were screened for the FH gene (familial hypercholesterolemia) but we don’t have it.
“Since my heart attack, I have done Cardiac Rehab in Comber which I really enjoyed. It gave me my confidence back. The cardiac rehab nurses were able to properly explain what had happened to me. They also taught me how to avoid it happening again by making changes, for example to my diet and continuing to exercise.
“Before the heart attack, I always said I got exercise through my work as I have a manual job as a car mechanic. But I can see now that I need to do exercise which raises my heart rate. Anne goes to the gym and is keen for me to go too.
“I would say that before the heart attack, my diet wasn’t rubbish. I didn’t eat greasy food but I liked sweet stuff, and I liked a drink.
“Now Anne has changed the family’s diet to include wholemeal foods and less processed foods, for example, rather than using pasta sauce from jars, we now use tinned tomatoes and herbs.
“As a result of these changes and the medication, my cholesterol level is now 3.7.
“A heart attack not only physically affects the person. My confidence took a big knock. Anne could see the difference in me after the heart attack, as could close friends and family. I was no longer the life and soul of the party. But the cardiac rehab helped me get back to the person I was before.
“My heart attack also had an impact on others. There were 32 of us at Fairyhouse that day and everyone was affected by what happened. Anne still gets flashbacks and can still hear the sound of the defibrillator being used on me.
“It was also a big shock for my siblings as I was the youngest.
“It’s been a long road. It really took a month or two to start to get back on my feet nevermind back to my former self. But once I started to feel stronger, I knew I wanted to fundraise to help others. In November I held a Night at the Races and raised £5000 for Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke. Santander bank had pledged to donate 50% of what I raised so my final total was £7500!
“I know I was a very fortunate man and I want my experience to be a warning to others. When I was told I had high cholesterol, I just thought I would have to cut down. I didn’t think it could be life threatening so I wasn’t looking out for the early warning signs of a heart attack. I want people to learn from me!”
Find out more about the cardiac support services that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offer.