Colin McVittie

 In 2005 I had been out for a ride on my motorbike and felt unwell a short time after arriving home. It was approaching 5pm and I had to get hold of my solicitor quickly as I knew after 5pm it would be next to impossible. At the same time my girlfriend of the time rang. I explained that I had an urgent call to make and I would call her back. I also remember that I was desperate to go to the toilet (this is relevant!). 

After speaking with my solicitor I managed to crawl to the toilet as by now I was unable to stand up without feeling like I was going to black out. I laid myself out on the settee managing to get my motorbike leathers off lying on my back - not easy! After about 15 minutes my girlfriend rang back not happy that I hadn’t returned her call. When I explained how I was feeling her anger turned to concern.

Meanwhile I rang my doctor’s surgery and managed to speak to a doctor who diagnosed vertigo over the phone and assured me it would go off very soon. I then contacted a friend who is a nurse and I knew he would be passing my house soon on his way home from work. He came in and made me a sweet cup of coffee, the worst possible thing it turned out, and left for home. Some weeks later I confronted him and he reminded me that he is a psychiatric nurse and that he had noted that I was schizophrenic so he went home! Friends!!

A couple of hours later nothing had changed when my girlfriend turned up with her cousin who is an A&E nurse and was visiting from New Zealand. She took my pulse and said very little else but picked up the phone and rang for an ambulance. My resting heart rate was 150 beats a minute, healthy is 62!

The paramedics turned up and wired me up to a machine which confirmed I was in Atrial fibrillation (AF); this is where the heart has gone out of rhythm, so they carted me off to hospital. I lay in the A&E bed filling bottle after bottle up; this is an effect of AF. Over the next 24 hours a lot of tests were done and I was filled with various drugs but the heart rate stayed the same. It was then they decided that a cardio aversion was in order. This is where they pass an electrical current across the chest that stops the heart in the hope that it starts again in normal rhythm. I woke after a light anesthetic to be told that it had worked. I was so grateful. A few hours later I felt great and was sent home.

Soon afterwards I received an appointment to see a cardiologist. They sent me for an ECG, a cardio echogram (heart scan) and fitted me with a heart monitor to check my heart rhythm over a period of time. I remember the look of shock on the consultants face when he listened to my heart then broke the news that I had a Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. I looked at him blankly. He explained it was a genetic problem that can be managed but I needed to take things easy. He also pointed out that if I looked it up on the internet that it would scare me as the prognosis is sudden death! However he went on to say that once it is managed that that is much less likely. A couple of months later I had another unscheduled visit to hospital with AF which this time they controlled with drugs.

Over the previous few years leading up to this I had become used to getting breathless and light headed but put it down to unhealthy living when actually these are all symptoms of a cardiomyopathy. Even now I cannot exert myself quickly otherwise my blood pressure drops leaving me feeling light headed and sometimes my heart will start racing. When exercising I need to build up to it slowly and be very careful cooling down.

When you are diagnosed with a condition like this you start to reflect back on life and how it may have affected you in the past. I was always a strong swimmer but could never do the front crawl without getting breathless very quickly; apparently this is due to the lateral stress across my heart. I used to road race motorcycles in the days when we push started them off the grid. If I didn’t get started first time then I remember it would take me a couple of laps to get my breath back. I used to run a little during this time to keep reasonable levels of fitness but never enjoyed it. All these things it turns out could have been dangerous for me to do.

I now lead a relatively active life with the condition controlled by drugs. The advice from the experts is to exercise but non competitively. I walk my dog about 3.5 miles nearly every day, still ride a motorcycle, often touring across Europe. I get more tired than I should because of the condition but it is a condition that I have learnt to live with and now see as a bit of a nuisance. I work as a self employed sales agent so I can manage my own hours as tiredness can be an issue if trying to hold down a 9-5 job. Things do get me down from time to time, but I think this is normal when you find you have a life changing condition. There are some adventurous things I would love to do but simply cannot. It is all about accepting it and focusing on what I can do rather than what I can’t. There are people out there a lot worse off than me.

This condition is hereditary. My father had a heart attack at the age of 55 but was never diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. He almost certainly had it as he suffered with low blood pressure. My grandfather was diagnosed with asthma, this I am told could have been the same due to shortness of breath. I am lucky to be living now as medical advances have meant better diagnoses and treatments.  You certainly become very grateful for the medical profession in helping you to mange to live a normal life.