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Dublin: 3 °C Tuesday 12 November, 2019
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Science Changes Lives: Pacemaker for a 28-year-old footballer? Yes, it saved me

Sean Prunty was diagnosed with a cardiac condition that put paid to his job as a footballer – but technology has given him a new path in life.

WHEN I WENT into the doctor, it was as if he was doing this all his life. The way he said it to me! He sat across from me with the report book and asked, ‘Have you another career?’ I said ‘No’. The chair got smaller and the room got bigger. That feeling: Could I please wake up from this? It felt like a nightmare! - Sean Prunty

Sean Prunty Sean Prunty playing for Longford Town in the FAI Ford Cup Quarter Final in 2007. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Seán Prunty moved to England at 16 to play for Middlesbrough Football Club. Three years later he moved home to Longford Town. When his club was relegated from the top league in 2007, he moved to Drogheda United.

“I was always able to train at the highest intensity,” he says.

His new club was set to play in the Champions League that year so all players were screened for heart problems. But when Prunty was examined, it wasn’t good news. For the “fit and healthy” footballer, this routine test threw up a surprise. “They made a decision that I would have to stop playing soccer with immediate effect.”

The then 28-year-old professional was diagnosed with a cardiomyopathy, indicating there was a problem (pathy) with the muscle (myo) of the heart. His heart was functioning at only 30%. Most athletes have a heart function of around 80%.

Without a pacemaker I wouldn’t be here

During the three years following his diagnosis, he had a number of cardiac arrests and was fitted with a pacemaker. This is a small device which is inserted into either the chest or the abdomen to help control abnormal heart rhythms. When the heart beats incorrectly, it is unable to pump enough blood around the body. This can result in tiredness, shortness of breath and, if organs are damaged, death.

The first implantable pacemakers were trialled in humans in the late 1950s. United States inventor Wilson Greatbatch improved previous versions of this device in his barn until one that worked first in dog and then human trials was licensed for use in 1961.

Intermittent electrical impulses are used to compensate for breakdowns in the heart’s natural rhythm but the equipment used to do this was too bulky to fit inside the body prior to the 1950s. Greatbatch conducted many experiments until he overcame obstacles including shrinking the equipment and shielding it from body fluid.

Pacemaker technology is constantly being developed. New research published last month in the journal Science described an innovative biological pacemaker. Instead of being powered by batteries which need to be changed every few years, a gene was injected into the heart of a number of pigs. This transformed normal cells into special cells that can initiate a heartbeat.

Though biological pacemakers are still a number of years away, Prunty’s piece of technology stops him worrying about “keeling over”. It has also been a big relief for his parents who worried every time he went to sleep before the pacemaker was fitted. “My father would come in and check on me at night to see if I was still breathing,” he recalls.

Sean and his girlfriend Jacqueline Fitzpatrick at the Runamuck Challenge last year.

The retired athlete is now happy that he can “do a bit of training” without worrying about going into cardiac arrest. He has felt the pacemaker kick in around six times since 2011.

“You become so weak. Then all of a sudden you feel your heart beating again.” These events are reminders to him of what could have happened.

It wasn’t easy for Prunty to begin his career with no “piece of paper”. His lack of qualifications and higher education was just one of the hurdles he had to overcome. He was very angry at the time, as he “had nothing except playing football”. He says: “It was like a death in the family.”

With the help of a sports psychologist and an offer of a college place from Athlone IT, he rebuilt his life. He now works for an Irish sports nutrition company, Kinetica, and recently became a father when his son Evan was born in April. His anger has been replaced with relief that his heart problem was discovered.

“I have to count my blessings.”

THIS IS THE second in a series of articles which explore the impact that science and research is having on real people’s lives in Ireland.

From a pacemaker which keeps an athlete’s heart beating to an activist who has gone from being born deaf to being able to talk on the phone for the first time, we focus on five individuals for whom innovative technology is having a profound effect.

The series is inspired by the story of adventurer Mark Pollock’s bid to walk again through cutting-edge research and tech advances. His journey will be revealed in the feature documentary, Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Film, due for release in Ireland this October.

As part of the release the film will be touring the country promoting science in association with the Science Foundation Ireland.

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About the author:

Maria Delaney

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