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Life after heart attack 'I was dead before I hit the ground - I was 52'

Paul Nolan suffered a ‘widowmaker’ heart attack in 2022 and lived to tell the tale.

Paul Nolan is a professional marketer, as well as a songwriter, musician and fitness enthusiast in his spare time. Here he relates a near-death experience last year in the hope of encouraging readers to be heart-aware…

THERE ARE ABOUT 3,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests every year in Ireland and, sadly, only about 6-7% of those affected survive. That I found myself on the right side of such a statistic is something for which I will always be incredibly grateful.

It was almost 8 pm on 2 December 2022 when I suffered my cardiac arrest. I was dead before I hit the ground. I felt no pain and knew nothing of the commotion that followed. My life did not flash before me. There was no ‘white light’ to which I was drawn, nor a feeling of bliss, unconditional love, peace or contentment.

I did not find myself in a ‘celestial tunnel’ meeting all of the people I had known who had passed before me. All there was was a piercing, visceral sense of blackness and terror.

I was healthy

I did not acquit myself with any kind of distinction academically as a young student, despite the best efforts of several talented, conscientious teachers in St Paul’s College in Raheny.

The only topic in which I had any real interest was poetry, in particular the work of Emily Dickinson. Her poem ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ intrigued me for nearly 40 years, as I pondered the moment and the circumstances in which I might shuffle off my own mortal coil. I hoped it would be quick and painless… and so it proved.

Prior to this episode I had been a healthy 52-year-old, who didn’t smoke, drank only moderately and had a very good diet. I exercised regularly and had just completed the 2022 Dublin City Marathon.

Apart from my cholesterol being marginally higher than it should have been, I had received a clean bill of health from my GP only the day before all of this unfolded.

However, unbeknownst to both of us, my left anterior descending (LAD) artery was at the time almost totally blocked in two places, as was a sub-artery… those were near-perfect conditions for the occurrence of a ‘widowmaker’ heart attack… one which is almost always fatal.

femaledoctortouchstonevirtualheartinhand-blurredphotohandrawn Shutterstock / mi_viri Shutterstock / mi_viri / mi_viri

My father has always subscribed to the maxim that it’s better to be born lucky than rich. For much of my life theretofore, I’m not sure I agreed with those sentiments or felt greatly blessed with either. However, I was hugely fortunate to be down in Newbridge Athletics Club on the night of 2 December 2022 when this incident occurred.

I was out on the running track with friends from the club, all of whom responded quickly and did an incredible job in terms of providing immediate CPR and shocking my heart with the defibrillator from the clubhouse. Newbridge Community First Responders and National Ambulance Service Paramedics were quickly on the scene and they too were instrumental in my resuscitation.

generalviewofalifesavingdefibrillator-portableautomatedexternal Defibrilator Shutterstock / SURKED Shutterstock / SURKED / SURKED

My understanding is that I was clinically dead for three to four minutes, and all the while clubmates worked frantically to try to revive me.

Once the first responders and paramedics were satisfied that it was safe to do so, I was taken by ambulance to Naas General Hospital where I was placed in an induced coma while tests were carried out to determine what might have happened.

On the Sunday evening, I was transferred to Blackrock Clinic and admitted with a suspected heart attack, pneumonia and an hypoxic brain injury. On the Monday I had a coronary angiogram procedure, an invasive test using X-ray dye, which determined there were serious issues with my LAD artery (the largest coronary artery which supplies blood to the heart).

cardiaccatheterizationwithcoronaryangiographyonblurrycardiaccatherizationlab Paul's doctors performed a coronary angioplasty after the heart attack. Shutterstock / April stock Shutterstock / April stock / April stock

That Tuesday evening, I had a coronary angioplasty which involved temporarily inserting and inflating tiny balloons in the affected sections of the narrowed artery. This was combined with the permanent placement of three small wire mesh tubes called ‘stents’ which helped to prop the artery open and decrease the chances of it narrowing again.


I was discharged a few days later and, after a very quiet Christmas at home, I began my rehabilitation. In the year or so since, with the help and support of the Naas Hospital Cardiac Rehab Team, my wife and family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues, I have made a full recovery.

As a testament to that, I was delighted to complete my fourth Dublin City Marathon this October!

However, I was very confused and angry after my cardiac arrest, and couldn’t understand how or why this had happened when I’d been taking good care of myself for many years. Weeks into my recovery, a cardiac physiotherapist explained to me that my fitness was a huge contributor to my surviving the arrest. Put plainly, she advised this would have happened 5–10 years earlier if I hadn’t been fit and there would have been no chance at all of a positive outcome.

And so I write today to offer my sincerest thanks to everyone who took care of me when I was sick. My family and I will be forever indebted to you.

It is my hope also that in telling my story here that I might be able to positively influence readers engaging in exercise to be heart-aware and also to remind people (men in particular!) of the value of regular health check-ups, both of which can greatly reduce the risk of a cardiac event.

Please take care when exercising and if involved in a very intense sport you need to be aware that you shouldn’t be exercising much beyond 80% of your maximum heart rate. If there is any history of heart disease in your family, please tell your GP and ask whether tests such as an ECG, heart stress test and angiogram might be appropriate.

My family and I have been on quite a journey over the last year and I am immensely lucky to be able to share this experience with you today. However, too many people I know think something like this could never happen to them, and may not be as fortunate as I was if it did. Please take care and be heart-aware.

Paul Nolan is a professional marketer, as well as a songwriter, musician and fitness enthusiast in his spare time. 

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