The title might seem dramatic to a few, however, in my case, yes, it was cause for some upheaval in my life. It shook me to my core. The essence of my being was challenged and I got the fright of my life. It has shaped me for who I am now. I can only say this after the events that ensued and as a result of such things happening. The consequences led me to go after other things in life and realise that we are alone when we come into the world and we are alone when we leave it. It is a hard pill to swallow for some and some might even view it as sad but if you are not comfortable being alone with yourself then you need to do some serious emotional maturity training - see video below on emotional maturity.
I am currently living in Germany reflecting back over the previous few years as the life that took me on such adventures started long before the heart operations and even before the PhD - see post "done is better than perfect - lessons I learnt from my PhD" and "Moving to Germany" and also "NUI Galway". I had always had it in me to leave home. I knew I wanted to see the world and explore new places. Since I was a little girl a friend of my sisters called Gráinne had gone to Galway and had influenced my decision to go there as I chose what places to go to University. Once I left Limerick that was it. I would be gone for more than half of my lifetime having travelled and lived in France for a summer, Luxembourg for a year, other parts of Ireland for the rest and now Germany since 2017.
What started as a six month stay in Germany for work ended up in me staying for what looks like the long term. I came here in July 2017 after an opportunity came knocking at work and… other reasons - see post below. It was all by chance and I took it. I decided it would only be for the six months and so I could go and see and come back after that but I am still here and it’s now 2020. Anyway, getting back to the topic. Not long after I arrived in Germany I went to Serbia, climbed a few mountains and eventually by the end of September ran the Berlin marathon.
The race day was freezing and we had to keep warm during the warm up. I met an Irish woman who was with her daughter and had been living here since the 70s. She loved it and fell in love with a German man only to settle down here and embrace German life and living. She was at this stage I would say in her 60s or 70s running a race with her daughter who was certainly in her 30s. We chatted for a bit and I found out she was from Mayo. I was wearing an Ireland jersey to start the race before swapping it for my finisher’s t-shirt once I crossed the finish line.
The race was tough and I ran up beside a guy wearing a singlet from the Garda Society where An Garda Síochána have a singlet representing the crest of the guards - see link
https://www.garda.ie/en/About-Us/Garda-Societies/ As Guards in Ireland you can usually talk to them like ask for directions, take photos on nights out with them, they’re fairly friendly, if you are ever lost, find your nearest guard and ask them to help you. This was usually the case at home so I ran up beside him with a pain in my chest that felt like a cramp. He was really lovely, told me he was a detective working in Dublin and that I should probably stop running if I’ve a pain. I said I would stop and walk and he kept running. It might sound odd but at the 40km mark of a 42.2km race, you do not think straight and all you are focused on is finishing. It’s a little similar on how I approach a lot of my goals in life - pain--> ignore, goal --> continue.
I remember so vividly looking for some people around the race but for some reason it was terribly cold and miserable out that there were not so many supporters let alone race marshals to call upon. I stopped. I walked for an entire kilometre and the pain subsided. It was really as if I had a cramp, as if someone had put their hand into my chest and squeezed my heart tightly but kept it squeezed. That squeeze then stopped and it was more of a relief than anything else. I felt dizzy and yet wanted to finish. It was painful but when you run marathons and this was my fifth one, you train your mind to ignore pain. You focus on the joy of being able to do a marathon rather than on the pain experienced towards the end. It was insufferable though and a cramp in my heart, that's all I could describe it as - like a cramp but IN my actual heart. My entire body at this point was frozen with the cold wet weather and I couldn't feel my body really except for my heart. I was, for all intensive purposes, numbed out.
Once the pain had subsided I knew I had to either finish or find a race marshal. I slowly jogged the rest of the race until I got under the Brandenburg gate. I could see the finish line. I got a cramp in my right buttocks that was as if someone had stuck a needle in my backside and all the cold wet weather had gotten the better of me and my muscles were starting to seize up. They were starting to contract as the body couldn’t take the dehydration experienced from running the 42.195 km race. I was the 195m away from the finish line and my right back side could not straighten out. The supporters were cheering. A medic came over to see if I was alright as I had to hold onto the railings on the left just a little after the Brandenburg gate. All I had to do was get to the finish line. I started getting emotional as the feelings of determination and relief both washed over me simultaneously as I was thinking that if I could just get to the finish line then it will be finished and I will be relieved that it’s over.
I hopped on one leg while holding my right leg up in such pain that was excruciating. I had never experienced such pain and it felt like I was watching someone take my body and stick a needle into my buttocks. I had visions of voodoo dolls and a smaller version of myself while someone stuck a large knitting needle into my backside. I finished the race and had to do the usual thing in races - collect the medal that I got engraved along with the finisher’s t-shirt. It was going to be my best race and I was aiming for a good time so I wanted a momento for the occasion and so I had ordered it in advance. I finished it in 4 hours 11 minutes and it would be my final marathon. I was well and truly exhausted - see finishing photo below.
We celebrated that evening with the Blackrock Athletic club (see photo below) as we had joined as a team and gotten into the race by lottery entry the year before. I didn’t know Sean or Patricia that well and once I had the idea that I wanted to do the race I emailed the coach - also called Patricia - to ask any club members if they wanted to join. I was thinking that the chances are weighted for those who join as a club representative rather than an individual member and I was right. We got in while the others that joined as individuals were not picked. We were lucky to have had such an event.
A week later I had to go back to Ireland for a wedding that following Friday. A friend of mine was getting married on the west coast. I landed in Dublin and worked from there the rest of the week. I couldn’t shake off the exhaustion. I can only describe it as pure exhaustion. I decided the following day to book into the doctor for a quick check before work as I could not shake it and I decided to tell her about the ordeal. She did a quick ECG on me there and then and told me something was a little off about it but that she would examine the results of a blood test when it comes back. About an hour later she rang me and told me that she felt as though I looked awful and something else was the matter. She thought it best that I go to get the heart checked as soon as possible. She has previously given me an examination for it the previous April for the Paris Marathon and I was a little stressed at the time so we wrote off the high heart rate as something that would go away once the stress had subsided.
The wedding was the following day and I was getting a lift down with a friend of mine. The doctor insisted that I go to a cardiologist friend of hers in Blackrock clinic before the drive down and had personally made the appointment for the earliest that she could so I went in for the 7am appointment and saw the cardiologist. He had said that he was ‘the plumber’ of the heart but that I needed an ‘electrician’. He was going to ask me to monitor my heart over the next few weeks but to take it easy and to come back again in October.
So October came and I flew back to Ireland again for halloween and I was back to visit the doctor. I gave him the results from my heart monitor that I had been using and he said, yes, yes I think you’ll need an operation. Your heart is ‘unusual’. Let me tell you this - if you ever hear a doctor say that anything is ‘unusual’ that is not a good thing. You want to be a regular, run of the mill, wham bam thank you mam it’s all over straight away thing - not an irregular, we don’t know and have to explore things!
I told him I’d book an appointment with 'the electrician' cardiologist (Dr.Lyne) in December when I was home again and that I wasn’t allowed to do any exercise - maybe light exercise but nothing like I was doing previously. I did run daily and do planks after every run along with strength exercises and stretches. It was part of my being. I had done Army boot camp with the Irish Army in Dublin and I LOVED IT. I highly recommend it if you’re in Dublin, it’s a lot of fun training outside with a mix of Army and accomplished sports persons https://bootcampireland.com/ That was part of who I was since I was a kid. I was always running, I would run home with my Granddad and hide in doorways along the way and jump out to scare him. I had been the person in school with the medals in running for 800m races and I had gone to the North Athletic Munster running trials along with doing team sports like Hockey and all sorts. In college I picked up Karate and was a PR office of the Karate club and this Berlin marathon was my 5th marathon. I was part of the Blackrock Athletic club and even in Darmstadt when I moved I joined training sessions with the Darmstadt triathlon team thinking that I'd eventually do a triathlon if I could ever learn to swim properly (thankfully that came last year but that's the story below!).
I went in for the appointment on Thursday afternoon having left work a little early in order to make it and sat to hear that he wanted to do the operation. I was expecting this. I thought about it and said well okay I can come back in January or February. He said that my heart was going at 182-210 beats per minute while resting all day long and at some point it will rest and the heart will give up. It is not sustainable, your heart will become exhausted. It’s a muscle, it will eventually need some rest.
It was December 7th 2017 and I got a fright. I was by myself as usual after flying back from Germany to come home for the Christmas party with the Dublin office the following day. The doctor said no, I think it’s important to do this as soon as possible and we can schedule you in for tomorrow. So with that I thought about it for about a second and was like, okay let’s just get it over and done with. How long will it be? He didn’t know as he described it as trying to take a photo of a speeding car while looking from the sidelines. It looked like the heart was beating so fast - at this stage it was roughly 210 beats per minute but also beating not only fast but also irregularly. It skipped beats and I’d feel terrible as my entire body felt like it was vibrating when it was beating so fast and I could hear it in my ears.
I walked out of the room knowing that the following day I would be sedated and the heart would be repaired. I rang my family and yes I was scared. The doctor had described it as an emergency surgery as he didn’t want to even let me leave the hospital to get my things and check in as it was beating so irregularly as well as fast. I was in Dublin and my family were all in Limerick. I was convincing myself that it was fine but I really yearned for someone to be with me and go into this with me. I had never felt such emotion and a need of support.
I rang someone who I thought was going to be there for me and he wasn’t. He said ‘oh I’ll come after work’ as if I was inviting him to dinner in Milano's restaurant and that I was getting there before him! I was crushed! I went into practical mode straight after that call and rang for a taxi. The taxi driver picked me up, I rang the airbnb and checked out and finally rang my insurance company to check I was covered. I was sitting in the reception of the most expensive hospital in Dublin waiting to hear if the cost of the surgery would be covered and it was and then I checked myself in.
I was by myself as normal but this time I felt bewildered and lost. I was used to being alone, I lived alone, I studied alone, I ran alone, I did most things alone but for some reason in this bewilderedness I wanted support. I had thought that some people would be here before the surgery at least. I mean I had all these horrible thoughts running through my mind. I was allergic to so many drugs (the list was long) including penicillin and had terrible reactions that lasted in a wisdom tooth operation recovery lasting three weeks instead of the usual recovery time with swollen mouths and injections to reduce swelling and trips to the emergency room as my face shrivelled up to make it seem as I thought I had NO lips. I was getting sick hourly with it and eventually after 12 hours of that had to go into the emergency room.
So of course after that experience I had awful thoughts that regarded any drugs going into my body and any reactions that I might have to them. I was freaked out although I wasn't freaking out. It was a stillness and focus that I needed to get everything ready. So this time being back in hospital working with the unknown and being uncertain about what was coming, I was overwhelmed and anxious and yet I still kicked into practical mode. I had all my belongings for the stay in the hospital as I had already brought them with me for the few days in Ireland. I was ready. I was comfortable with my overwhelm as I embraced it as something that needed to be done.
The surgery was surreal, I was awake for it and it was like an outer body experience. It took four hours and I was reassured that it would all be fine. They poked and prodded and I could smell the burning from the surgery as they tried to find the parts that needed to be burnt. I could feel everything, it wasn’t painful but I could feel the surgeon stick lines into both groins. One was for a camera and the other was for the instrument to burn the heart. I could see the six screens to my left and as the anaesthetist gave me the sedative he talked about his trip to Mont Blanc and we spoke about climbing. He couldn’t give me too much as I had to stay away. The heart would slow down too much while asleep. We spoke at the start and then again towards the end to try and keep me from falling asleep. I had the surgery and once that was over I remember the surgeon being disappointed as he didn’t fix it. The heart was beating too quickly to catch the issues. He said it was like trying to catch a speeding car and also looking for a needle in a haystack at the same time.
I was finished and brought back to the room. I remember the wave of clarity that washed over me as the people that were there were the right people and I am so glad that they came. I am so thankful for the people who came to visit me in the hospital. I guess I was still shocked afterwards. I stayed optimistic that it would be fine but deep down I was overwhelmed. I don't think the people know how much it meant to me when they came to visit. They truly made my days knowing that they were on the way there. I usually was so used to being alone that I would even say to people 'ah sher I'll be out in a few days it's grand don't bother going to the trouble of visiting' but in actual fact I cherished the visits and what people brought with them too. I am usually easy-going and independent to say the least but in this case I was grateful for the support and even when the days in hospital were fine and I fell into the hospital routine chatting to the nurses, looking out the window to the waves crashing and I enjoyed the peace that had befallen me during this time. I am forever grateful to the people that visited and were there during what I can think of as a the lesson of all lessons in my life.
I learnt a lot in that time and I learnt a lot from that entire experience. The clarity that washed over me after surgery was one of connectedness and serenity that I had never experienced - perhaps it was the drugs or a realisation that it’s fine, all works out, I came through and I can breathe a sigh of relief. I then had to remain patient while waiting for the next surgery which was six months afterwards as the heart had to heal but that’s another story involving sitting in a waiting room with patients that were all over 70 and the realisation that as I was a young and what seemed to be once fit person had to overcome. I was yet again alone going to the appointment and let me tell you - I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We can support ourselves, we can comfort ourselves and the lessons that I have learnt were far greater than I could have imagined. That’ll be for another blog post. In a twist of fate I am thankful that I had that.
Even though it may seem like a minor surgery to some however it flipped my life of sport upside down, my coping mechanism for most of my life was sport and exercise of some sort. I was athletic in school and I've done various sports along the way. It has changed my life but for the better and I am so grateful for the birthday card I received from my colleagues as I spent it in hospital and to the staff of Blackrock clinic as well as Dr. Lyne for operating on me twice in a number of months. I received flowers from friends that I was so surprised to receive. I don't think anyone had sent me flowers before that. It was so thoughtful and considerate. If I forget anything it's because it was a few years ago now but I know that I was grateful to every single person that showed up for me during that time.
I had the best of care in the top hospital in Ireland and I had the best support from the right people. I had visitors and even those who couldn't make it were there afterwards. I was well and truly exhausted after the marathon and you can see me in my Ireland jersey after suffering, it's a slight smile of relief that it was over. I also had Christmas at home and I made sure to wear a skirt as the doctor had said that he might have to do a 'more intrusive' operation the next time and warned me that it might entail cutting me open instead of going through the groin. David took me out of the house for the first time and brought me into town. Seriously lucky to have such great friends, he drove down from Galway and all to visit. That Christmas I was so happy to be alive and the decisions that were made as a result of that were the best decisions I have ever made. It has given me the peace and clarity needed to shed away all the things that did not serve me good in my life. Not being able to walk up the stairs without being breathless after being able to run 42.195km previously was a bit of a shock to the system. I am glad to say that that is all over now and I can look back at the lessons and decisions made with pride as they make up who I am as a person.