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'I remember seeing myself on the telly and thinking I looked terrible'

Michael Lyster wants people to know the symptoms of heart failure, which affects about 90,000 people in Ireland.

lyster Michael Lyster at the Stand Up to Heart Failure launch Source: Billy Stickland, Inpho Photography

MICHAEL LYSTER IS gearing up for one of his busiest days of the year.

He will be on TV screens all over the country this weekend, when Mayo and Dublin meet in the All-Ireland senior football final.

The Sunday Game host is a household name, and an important fixture in the GAA world.

But in 2015, Lyster was making headlines for a different reason after suffering a cardiac arrest. Since then he’s spoken publicly about his own experience in a bid to raise awareness. Yesterday, he launched an information campaign called Stand Up to Heart Failure.

It’s estimated that about 90,000 people in Ireland live with heart failure, with thousands more being diagnosed every year.

The campaign aims to improve awareness of heart failure, as an early diagnosis and treatment are key to ensuring people who have the condition live longer, better lives.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Lyster recalls: “I had heart failure in 2012. That’s I suppose, as the saying goes, exactly what it says on the tin. Your heart develops a disease and it just starts to malfunction.

“It’s not like a heart attack and it’s not like a cardiac arrest or anything like that, which are sudden events. This was something that was going on for a while. Obviously I didn’t know what was wrong with me.”

Lyster, 63, initially thought he had a virus. When antibiotics didn’t clear up the symptoms, he went back to the doctor and was sent to Blackrock Clinic for tests.

“When I went in, the tests were supposed to take about an hour. I was in there about 20 minutes when I was rushed up to the cardiac unit because I was in big trouble.”

Lyster was told his heart was only functioning at 10-15%.

With the benefit of hindsight, he recognised he had a number of telltale symptoms such as swollen ankles and waking up in the middle of the night gasping for breath.

The signs were there when he was in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia for an All-Star GAA tour in 2011, about a year before he found himself in hospital.

“I remember a couple of evenings at night time going back to the hotel, which was up on a little bit of a hill, and going up and having to pause on the way up and just get my breath.

“I’m thinking to myself I’ve obviously had 15 gallons too many of Heineken and this is the reason for it, but looking back on it afterwards I said to myself, I was obviously beginning to get this scenario.”

CPR

When he had a cardiac arrest in 2015, Lyster’s wife performed CPR.

“The funny thing about that is she didn’t really [know CPR],” Lyster recalls, saying Anne used “common sense” and performed chest compressions until emergency services arrived.

“I took a CPR course with RTÉ but unfortunately you can’t do it on yourself. That’s the irony of it, I was trained in it and Anne wasn’t.

She didn’t do mouth-to-mouth or anything like that, she just did chest compressions but did them aggressively and it was the aggressive side of it that was the important side of it. There’s no point doing it politely, this has to work.

Lyster says first responders have since told him it’s better to risk breaking a person’s ribs, than do nothing.

The presenter also believes geography may have played a role in him surviving the cardiac arrest.

“There’s an ambulance port just up the road from where I live in Cabinteely, at Loughlinstown Hospital, and the ambulance was actually down fairly quickly.

“To be honest with you I wouldn’t like this thing to happen to me out in rural Galway or somewhere in rural Ireland because there would be a lot of people doing heart compressions and eventually they’d just decide to put you in a box.”

croi Ciara Keane, Heartbeat Trust; Colleen Kneafsey, Croí; Mary Anne Sweeney, Irish Heart; Michael Lyster. Source: Billy Stickland, Inpho Photography

Shortly after the incident, Lyster had a cardiac defibrillator installed. He said he was feeling back to himself quite quickly. However, it took a lot longer to recover from his heart failure in 2012.

“That took weeks and months to come back to full fitness … It happened in September 2012 and I didn’t really feel well again until the following March or April.

“It was a slow process of medication, being under medical care, diet, exercise – I joined the gym which I passionately hated.

I decided to go back to work in RTÉ in 2013 for the League Sunday programme and I remember sitting down the first week the programme was on and watching a recording of it on the telly and thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, you look fucking terrible.’ I had lost almost four stone.

“Because this happened off-season – it happened at the end of the All Irelands and that kind of thing – I was able to deal with that privately at the time but then fellas saw me on the television and the word was going around, ‘Your man is for the box, have you seen the cut of him on the telly?’”

Lyster’s heart is now functioning at about 60% (a normal rate).

Family history

He says there was a “litany” of heart issues on his mother’s side of the family. She lived until she was 78, but some of her family members died in their 50s and 60s.

“I remember when my mother was alive and she had high blood pressure. I’d be down in Galway visiting her and she’d be counting out these things on the table and I’d say, ‘Would you not have an aul gin and tonic, surely it’s better than that aul shite’.”

Lyster himself now has to take seven tablets a day, including a blood thinner. As well as medication, he tries to stay active and watch what he eats. He’s also considering rejoining the gym “just to annoy myself and feel really bad about having to go”.

“The good news for people in this situation is you don’t actually have to turn yourself into a monk. You have to be sensible about it. I can’t be down in the local pub every night singing the Lakes of Ponchartrain and end up in McDonald’s every evening, you know.”

Stand Up To Heart Failure, a campaign supported by Croí, Heartbeat Trust, Irish Heart, and Novartis, aims to raise awareness about the symptoms of heart failure.

These include fatigue; shortness of breath, especially during activity or when lying flat; and swollen feet or ankles. Common risk factors of heart failure include high blood pressure, previous heart attacks and diabetes.

For more information on heart failure call Irish Heart’s freephone nurse helpline on 1800 25 25 50 or click here. World Heart Day will take place on 29 September, more information is available here.

Read: If someone you know goes into cardiac arrest, you’re their best chance of survival

Read: ‘He’s still walking but he’s struggling’: Parents fight for access to ‘life-changing’ drug

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