Maura Canning remembers the day at the Women & Agriculture conference in Killarney in 2012 vividly. She was chairperson of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA), Farm Families committee at the time and as well as being involved with the IFA stand, she was also helping out with some of the organisation of the conference.

It was only luck that she had a blood pressure check at the Irish Heart Foundation’s Mobile Health Unit that was providing such checks at the conference, she says.

“I went to the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF), stand at 5.30pm before they finished and a few people said to me: ‘what are you going in there for?’,” says Maura.

“I was 41 and didn’t think I had a problem but decided to get the check when it was available. It was a shock to hear that my blood pressure was 140/105. The norm is 120/80.”

A visit to her GP and a 24-hour blood pressure monitoring followed.

“I had the monitor on over the weekend. I was at a wedding and, in the car, I could see the reading going higher and higher so I went straight to A&E.

“It was 226/118 when I got there – a crazy figure. Doctors and nurses couldn’t believe that I hadn’t had a heart attack or stroke. Only that I was fairly fit, I probably would have had.”

Looking back now, she realises she should have seen the signs.

“Pure dead is how I’d describe it. I was yawning a lot, and I felt very, very tired all the time. I had a flowing sensation going through my head day and night too, like when you turn a tap on. I had no headaches or dizziness or anything like that so I didn’t think of high blood pressure.

“I wouldn’t have gone to the doctor if it hadn’t been picked up at the conference – I was very lucky I did that simple check.”

A week in hospital followed, during which she had many tests.

“In the hospital they were saying, ‘it’s weird, you’ve no headaches, you’ve no this and that’,” says Maura. “They checked everything –

kidneys, brain scan, the lot – and everything came back fine, so I was put on a combined blood pressure medication. Unfortunately, it didn’t work and I collapsed three months later because my blood pressure went too low, so they had to change the medication again. I’m on that one ever since and it’s working well.”

Family history

In hindsight, Maura realises that she should have been aware of a family history of heart problems.

“I know since that my grandfather died of a massive heart attack. I found this out a couple of years ago when my father had a heart attack because of 98% artery blockages. He had five stents inserted to hold open the blood vessels.

“Doctors told me I saved his life that day because I had aspirin to hand. I had learned how important having that in the house was. It helps to stop the blood clotting while you get help.”

Maura was very thankful for the support she received from the IHF in the months after hospitalisation. She is now a patient champion for the charity.

“The foundation provides all sorts of supports to people after a heart attack or stroke. These include a nurse support line and counselling support via Zoom meetings. There is also a peer-to-peer information programme and a Facebook Heart Support Network group,” she says.

“They are always on site at events like the Women & Agriculture conference, the National Ploughing Championships, the Beef Day in Grange, and so on. They do one-to-one blood pressure checks for free, and being free is a huge part of it – to encourage as many people as possible to get checked.

“However, this cannot be done without government support. This is a plea for support for these services. At present, only 8% of the IHF’s income comes from the State. That’s not enough.”

Maura has been recently involved in getting TDs to pledge their commitment to highlight the need for such funding – and asking people to lobby their politicians to do this also.

80,000 heart attacks and strokes each year

The need for extra funding is huge, according to Chris Macey, Director of Advocacy and Patient Support with the Irish Heart Foundation.

“Some 80,000 heart and stroke patients are discharged from hospital in Ireland every year – that’s an average of one every seven minutes,” he told Irish Country Living.

“The vast majority return home with no help to navigate the huge everyday challenges they face at what can be the greatest crisis point in their lives.

“The IHF is filling that void with a pathway of practical, social and emotional support services that many patients describe as their lifeline.”

One in every three stroke survivors returning home nationally is now benefiting from IHF services, he points out, whilst thousands of heart patients are also supported.

“Our services are impactful,” he says. “They empower people to play an active role in their own healthcare and prevent hospital re-admissions.

“They also reduce the number of stroke survivors requiring nursing home care and ensure that when patients’ conditions are deteriorating, they are appropriately escalated without delay.

“These are scalable and cost effective actions; and they remove a significant burden from frontline services.”

Having a stroke or receiving a diagnosis of heart failure can often cause post-traumatic stress disorder too, he adds.

Chris Macey

“Recent research has also shown shocking levels of suicidal ideation in the aftermath of a stroke,” he says. “In some parts of the country, the counselling we provide is the only psychological support available to patients who cannot afford to pay the cost themselves.”

IHF services are endorsed by the HSE, he states, but the charity receives just €130,000 of their €1,240,000 cost from statutory sources.

“This equates to an average of less than €19 per patient to deliver a pathway of services to people living with often complex support needs.

“We have been meeting the shortfall from reserves, but these are running out and we cannot guarantee the continuation of the services beyond the end of 2024.”

Looking foward

Maura Canning’s experience means she is keen to emphasise the value of taking time out to relax.

“In 2012, I was too ‘go, go, go’,” she says. “I was minding an aunt and uncle at the time as well as everything else, trying to be something for everyone. I step back now and I do my hair and nails and I go to classes and on social outings.

“I was ploughing (in competition) last weekend and I won. They are the kind of things that keep me going.

“Now if someone wants to meet for coffee, I say ‘yes’. Once I have the dinner sorted for Mam and Dad, I go. I never did that before.”

Maura Canning; Denis Naughten TD; Martina Greene, National Volunteer Programme Manager; and Carrie Minagh, patient champion and stroke survivor

However, she is aware of her limitations and when to ‘pull back’.

“I know now if I get that sensation in my head or if I am going too much, I need to slow down and rest” she says.

“If it happens, I could hop into bed at 9pm and you might not see me again until 8am the following morning. Sleep is the best medicine anyone can have. It repairs your body.”

She believes that Irish women, in particular, don’t pay enough attention to feeling tired.

“No one should be feeling tired all the time,” she says. “Get your blood pressure checked, every six months would be my advice, cholesterol too.” Learning how to manage stress is important also, she maintains.

“The IHF has lots of good tips for that, like walking or listening to meditation music on your phone or going to an exercise class.

“I went to a bootcamp and it really motivated me. It helped me get my head right because when you come back you have more strength in your body to deal with any situation.”

Tips to control blood pressure

If blood pressure is mildly high, these actions will help:

• Eat a balanced diet

• Cut down on salt

• Cut down on alcohol

• Aim for a healthy weight

• Be active

• Avoid smoking

• Manage stress

If your blood pressure is high, you may need medication to control it. Consult your GP for advice.

In Short

  • Get your blood pressure checked – before damage is done. Two in three adults over 50 have high blood pressure and half of those don’t know it
  • Every 90 minutes someone has a heart attack or stroke in Ireland
  • An estimated 600,000 people in Ireland are living with heart disease and the effects of stroke
  • The IHF supports 7,000 people each year
  • The IHF points out that it should be collaborating with health authorities to extend these vital services and support more people, rather than having to lobby to protect the services already in place
  • You can call the IHF Nurse Support Line with any questions or concerns you may have about managing heart disease. Available Monday (9am - 5pm) and Tuesday - Friday (9am - 1pm) - 01 6885001
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