Sudden Cardiac Death- to the heart of the matter

We hear one woman’s remarkable tale ahead of World Heart Day on Monday.

Written by Ciarán D'Arcy


Every year, over 100 Irish people under the age of 35 die of undiagnosed heart conditions. Although scans are readily available, many people are willing to gamble their health on the idea that they’re probably not that one person in 500 who has a potentially life-threatening heart defect.

Back in 2002, Martina McGuire was that one person. Having just arrived home from her family’s annual trip to the Dublin Horse Show on the 9th of August that year, 17 year-old Leaving Cert student Martina was blissfully unaware of the trauma that would be visited on her family by her untimely passing.

“She was perfectly healthy. We came home on the Friday and we all went to bed around 11:30/12 that night. She was meant to have work at eight the next morning, and I remember waking up to my mam running up the corridor shouting ‘Martina, you need to get up, you’re after sleeping in’, and it turned out that Martina was dead in her bed,” remembers Martina’s sister Mary, aged 12 at the time.

As it turned out, 17 year-old Martina was suffering from a rare genetic heart condition which caused her to pass away in her sleep without warning. Originally, doctors had little idea as to the cause of her death, but when a cousin of Mary’s was struck by a heart attack (which thankfully she survived) in Australia a few years later, the family decided to get tested in case they were similarly at risk.

After getting the all-clear following heart screenings in America that summer, Mary was eventually convinced to get further tests when she returned home in July.

“I remember [after a few tests] they sent me away with the monitor for my heart activity, and when I think about it, it was stupid really, but all I cared about was a house party in college that night,” says media graduate Mary.

“I took it off and posted it back the next day, and a month or six weeks later I got another letter to say ‘come back up we want to talk to you’, and the doctor recommended that I get fitted with a defibrillator because I have Long QT Syndrome.”

Effectively an elongated beat within one of the heart valves, Mary’s Long QT Syndrome can potentially cause her to go into cardiac arrest if she comes in contact with certain everyday medications, such as painkillers and cold and flu tablets. Now fitted with a defibrillator which drastically reduces her chances of running into complications, Mary is glad she got the opportunity to check her heart health before it was too late.

“When I got told I had to get fitted with a defibrillator, my automatic reaction was to cry, thinking ‘oh my God this is the worst thing ever’, but it’s really not, it’s completely fine, I don’t even realise I have it,” says Mary, who can still do tough exercises like crossfit despite her condition.

“It’s such a simple test. It’s painless, there’s no needles involved they don’t have to take your blood or anything like that, you just get wired up to machines and do a walk on a treadmill or something, it’s so easy for people but the effects are huge- it can save so many people’s lives.”

Although very few suffer from Mary’s condition, it’s never a bad idea to get your heart activity checked out. Take a look through the links for screening options below for more information on how you can get screened.

Irish Heart Foundation: Sudden cardiac death 

Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY): Cardiac screening tests

The Mater Foundation heart screening.

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