STAYING OUT OF THE WOODS

Johnny Ireland

“You’re out of the woods.”

It was 18 years ago but I can still see my consultant’s eyes today as he delivered this news. His face was warm, his smile was wide. But his eyes? I’d dodged a bullet… I wouldn’t mind, but I hadn’t known I was in the woods in the first place!

He was a top heart consultant and when I was told he’d been assigned to look after me – little old me with what I thought was just a ‘minor’ problem – I was impressed

From a very young age, I had always exercised. I wanted to be fit and healthy. I loved football at junior school. I played in goal. Until I stopped growing. When I moved to senior school I fell in love with basketball. Tennis too, both table and the hard and grass type. The one thing I was rubbish at, and continue to be rubbish at, is running. At school I was always given a 15-minute head start at the weekly cross country class. I finished last every single week. After every race, my games teacher would say: “You did it, you finished, you never gave up. Always believe.”

Bizarrely, I didn’t mind finishing last. There was something about seeing my classmates clapping and willing me over the line. Somehow, the sense of achievement felt greater. And I’ll never forget my inspirational games teacher whose mantra stays with me to this day.

Since leaving school, I’ve always been a member of a gym. Some hate the thought, and I get that. But for me it wasn’t about body building or looking at myself in the mirror (although, some may say I have a degree in that subject), it was about being in an environment of health and fitness.

At 18, I ran my first marathon (to be honest, it was more of a jog). I did it for a bet – my friends told me I had no chance. My first pair of running shoes cost just £6 and my longest training run before the actual event was around six miles. It was a time before mass marathon fever for charity had kicked in. The crowds were small but enthusiastic. I was at the back of the field, my cross country memories to the fore. But I was clapped every mile like an elite athlete. At the finish line I felt like a hero. I was hooked.

I continued to jog and entered various events, from 10ks to full marathons, primarily to raise money for charity. The adoration in a running event increases tenfold when a charity vest is worn. Rightly so.

In 2005 I ran the New York marathon. If you’re that way inclined, this has to be experienced at least once in a lifetime. I didn’t break any records but I crossed that finishing line. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.

On returning home my calf was sore. It was a weird pain that I’d never experienced before, deep inside my calf. I ignored it for weeks, thinking it was just a calf strain and that all would be well.

Eventually, I went to see my physiotherapist, a man I trusted only second to my father. He suggested I immediately go to my doctor with a ‘deep vein thrombosis’ diagnosis. Mildly concerned, I did as he suggested. My doctor smiled and said: “Your physio is perhaps a little over cautious.” I rang my physio who instructed me to go straight to Accident and Emergency.

My arrival at the hospital was like something from a comedy sketch – an episode of Carry on Doctor, perhaps. After explaining to the receptionist that my physio thought I had deep vein thrombosis she smiled and told me to take a seat. The waiting time was three hours…

After ten minutes my name was called. “You’ve been recommended by one of the top physiotherapists in the UK,” she said, suddenly less skeptical of my self-diagnosis. Clearly my physio had phoned ahead. As a result, I was assessed within 30 minutes and a blood thinning agent was applied to my stomach. At this point, I was beginning to realise that the situation was a tad serious.

Unfortunately, there were no spare beds and the hospital was unable to admit me. After signing a disclaimer, I was allowed to go home. It was 11pm and I had strict instructions to return at 8am the next day.

The following morning, I packed my toothbrush, kissed my wife goodbye, and headed back to hospital.

“You have a genetic disposition called Factor v (5) Leiden,” I was told. “It means your blood clots differently to normal people. Some people never know they have the condition. Your clot was in your calf. It is now in your lung…”

Okay. Now it was VERY serious.

“When a clot goes to your brain or heart it can be fatal. Your lungs are strong due to your fitness so your body will fight the clots. We know your medical history now. We have you.”

We have you… reassuring words that not everyone has the benefit of hearing. Including Nick.

Nick was my colleague. ‘Was’ because sadly he is no longer with us. On New Year’s Eve 2022 he collapsed at home. He was 39 years old and ready to celebrate the new year with his lovely partner, a nurse. She immediately spotted the signs of a potential stroke and he was admitted to hospital in super-quick time. Intensive care followed, as did a transfer to a top neurology hospital. Ten weeks later his family made the agonising decision to turn off the life support system.

Undiagnosed high blood pressure sadly led to a brain aneurysm from which there was no return. He never regained consciousness, and he had no idea of the medical condition he had carried for so long.

Nick left a lasting legacy to the company I work for. Every location now has blood pressure monitors. All colleagues are encouraged to check themselves weekly. It takes a matter of minutes. High readings lead to a fast doctor referral and preventative medicine being administered quickly. Genetic history is checked. From heaven, Nick is saving lives on a daily basis.

What do you know of your genetic medical history? You could argue the unfairness of not knowing at birth that there was a potential genetic disposition that could impact you in later life. We hear it a lot these days… “He/she died from a previously undiagnosed condition. It could have happened at any time…”
Not everyone has immediate access to finances to fund a personal blood pressure monitor but we all have access to NHS services. My doctor offers an annual health check clinic. Does yours? It’s basic but life-saving. Tiny blood samples are taken and nasty issues are quickly identified. Blood pressure is checked, cardiovascular systems are checked. It’s brilliant and it’s free.

Would such checks have saved my colleague’s life? Possibly not, but at least he would have known. Medication would have been administered, possibly for life. He would have managed his choices relating to health, diet and lifestyle.

Stroke occurrence, particularly in the younger demographic, is increasing annually. Is it down to lifestyle or undiagnosed pre-existing conditions? Both are manageable, so long as you know.

Nick sadly didn’t dodge the bullet. I did. If Johnny Ireland can urge you to do anything after reading this article it’s this – please check your blood pressure and question any genetic family history. And above all, stay out of the woods.