At the age of 42, a company in the US for which I was doing some work decided to take out Key Man Insurance on my life. Part of the application routine in the US is an EKG (ECG to us in the UK) and I remember a paramedic coming to the office near DC and fixing electrodes to my chest while I lay on the boardroom table. A couple of weeks later I took a call from the insurance agent who asked if I had ever noticed irregular heartbeats, tachycardia, palpitations and the like. My response was along the lines of “Doesn’t everyone?”, to which his reply was an emphatic “No!”. I was further informed that I could forget any idea of life insurance, and that I should visit a cardiologist as soon as I was back in the UK.
I took the ECG trace to my GP, who didn’t know what the specific problem was but who immediately spotted an inverted T-wave and told me that there was no way my heart could be described as normal. I was fortunate to be referred to Professor Huon Gray, who has recently become the government’s “heart Czar”, and he’s been monitoring my condition for the past twenty years. In the immediate aftermath of my diagnosis, I feared that I was about to peg out at any minute. The passage of time has given me more confidence and I realise that I’m very fortunate not to have succumbed to the kind of sudden, unexplained heart failure that has carried off so many people, many of them young, who had no idea that they were at risk. Given that an ECG is such a trivial exercise, it seems bizarre to me that it’s not a routine screening during school years. Who knows, with a growing awareness of this scourge, perhaps it soon will be. That’s certainly one of the objectives of the British Heart Foundation, the Cardiomyopathy Association and CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young).
There are all kinds of hereditary heart muscle diseases. I suffer from Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the heart muscle which brings with it a propensity for disturbance of the electrical signals that make the heart beat regularly. I’m fortunate that in my case, the abnormality doesn’t cause an obstruction to blood flows within the heart (hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, known as HOCM). There are a host of other variations, including dilated (DCM) or arrhythmogenic right ventricular (ARVC) cardiomyopathies, many of which would preclude much in the way of sporting activities. I frequently suffer spells of atrial fibrillation, but I’m used to it now. There’s always the risk that my heart will pack up altogether one day, but I believe it’s as likely to happen when I’m sitting in a chair as it is when I’m exercising. The longer I ‘get away with it’, the less I worry.
I believe that my chances are improved if I keep my weight down, and take the kind of regular exercise that the medics recommend for the population at large. I avoid lifting gut-busting weights in the gym, and I use a heart monitor when running or cycling so that I can avoid getting myself into the ‘red zone’. This summer’s Ride London 100 is going to be a challenge, but I believe that with sensible preparation it shouldn’t be unduly risky.