A TD who suffered a heart attack is warning everyone over 40 to get checked, saying if not for the speedy actions of doctors he might not be alive today.
Speaking to this newspaper on his first day back at work (Monday), Fine Gael Deputy John Paul Phelan (41) said he returned home having been out walking the block in Ferrybank with his wife Claire and their dog in mid-July when he started feeling unwell.
The former Tullogher Rosbercon, Good Counsel College and New Ross Rugby Club sportsman from Tullogher said: ‘It was a 7km walk. It’s quite hilly but we took our time. We didn’t push ourselves.’
He said: ‘It wasn’t what I thought a heart attack would be like. It was a big weight on my chest and a rawness in breathing which I put down to the smokes.’
Deputy Phelan said there were no sharp pains in the general heart area or in his arms.
‘We were home about an hour when it came on. It was painful right across the top of my chest and I had difficulty drawing my breath. I had something similar a month previously and it went away after 15 minutes but on July 12, 40 minutes after I had it, I started vomiting. Claire brought me to the car and took me to the A&E and by the time I was at the A&E the difficultly drawing breath and pain in my chest had heightened. You don’t think you’re going to get a heart attack when you’re 41.’
He thanked Claire’s mother, who is a nurse as she urged them to go get it checked out at hospital.
‘There I was in A&E in Waterford at that stage. They were asking me if it was a pulled muscle or indigestion. I know what a pulled muscle feels like and it didn’t feel like that, and it felt more than indigestion. The heart attack was on at that stage. It was about 3 p.m. on the Sunday. They gave me painkillers and put a monitor on me and through the night time, the monitor was live linked to the coronary care unit at Waterford.
‘At 6 a.m. the doctor came in. He was a bit flustered and started examining me a bit and they started to roll with the CT scan and took me to the Cath Lab for an angioplasty which is the opening up of blocked arteries.’
Deputy Phelan, who turns 42 this Sunday, said: ‘That Monday morning I was on the slab in Whitfield and the doctor (Dr O’Sullivan) broke the ice. He said “I know who are you, you’re a politician. I hope you’re in favour of the second Cath Lab” and everyone burst out laughing.’
Dr O’Sullivan informed Deputy Phelan that a 100 per cent blockage had been found. ‘I’m not an expert on medical stuff but when someone says 100 per cent blocked artery, you realise it’s serious. That was the first time I realised it was very serious. You’re fully aware during angioplasty and stents. I was watching it on a big 60in TV over my head. I found it fascinating to watch. I could see the outline of something on the scan. Sure enough when he placed the balloon on the end of the probe that goes under your artery in your right arm it opened up.’
He was kept in hospital for an additional week as there was a substantial clot in the heart. Deputy Phelan was put on numerous blood thinners to dissolve the clot and to avoid it moving he was confined to a small space as movement could move the clot, and is still on some.
‘I was pretty helpless and dependent on everyone. The people in the Cath Lab that morning and the following week when they put in the stent and the nurses in coronary saved my life. I feel better physically than I have in years. After the angioplasty the pain went.
‘I haven’t had pain since then. My blood pressure at times is half what it’s supposed to be.’
He found not being able to see his wife of 20 months in person for a fortnight particularly challenging.
‘With technology, I could see her through video calls but it’s not the same. I can imagine what it must be like for people not to be able to go in to see their loved one. by the time the two weeks came I really wanted to go home.’
Apart from low pressure, a genetic defect, currently exacerbated by the blood thinning medication, Deputy Phelan is feeling fine.
He plans to continue campaigning for a second Cath Lab for the south east. ‘I had a non stemmy heart attack, a 100 per cent blockage in the Left Anterior Downwards. Claire went home and looked it up and saw it’s called the widow maker so she wasn’t too happy about that. I was told if it got worse they might have to move me to Cork but thankfully we didn’t have to.
‘As the doctor said to me as I was on the slab. I was always a supporter of the need for 24/7 heart-care in the south east. Having been through it and outside the 9-5 hours at the weekend it put it all into perspective again. During the summer, everyone is being treated at the Cath Lab in Whitfield. There has to be a solution that involves both University Hospital Waterford and Whitfield.’
Prescribed a lot of rest, Deputy Phelan said it was difficult disconnecting from the day (and night) job. ‘Once I was out after two weeks I was walking a bit every day. I haven’t touched a cigarette in 65 days. Myself and herself have gotten bicycles through Covid like the rest of the country so I plan to get out on the greenway as much as I can.’
Having injured his back in the early 2000s, around the time he got into the Senate, Deputy Phelan said he has not been looking after himself the way he should have been.
‘Politics is very unhealthy business anyway. You could find yourself going the whole day and could find yourself in the evening you hadn’t eaten all day. Today, I am down three stone. I wouldn’t recommend a heart attack for weight loss! I’ve another stone and a half to go.’
Deputy Phelan was the youngest member of the Seanad in 2002 where he served two terms until his 2011 election to the Dáil. He served as a Kilkenny County Councillor from 1999 to 2003 and holds an economics degree.
He said the fast paced life of a politician does not lend itself to healthy living, adding that the toll the General Election took in February could have contributed to his health problems.
‘Healthwise looking back, the two signs were fatigue and my weight gain. I thought it was me moving into my forties. I had put on a lot of weight over the lockdown period despite doing a lot of physical work: splitting sticks and paintings houses. I was retaining fluid which was another key heart problem giveaway.’
Although he was answering queries on social media while recovering in hospital, Deputy Phelan has been taking things slowly.
‘I was warned not to but I was passing queries on to my office.’
As the former Good Counsel College student returns to work, he is urging everyone over 40 to get their heart checked.
‘There is extensive history of heart illness in my family. I hadn’t really thought about it before. My advice to anyone over 40 is get checked but especially if there is heart disease in your background. I had a lot more of it when I sat down and really thought about people than I appreciated all along.’
As for politics, he doesn’t foresee the government outlasting the Covid-19 vaccine. ‘I don’t think it will last but we need a government until there’s a vaccine for Covid. I’d be surprised if it didn’t last that long,’ Deputy Phelan said.
New Ross Standard