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Footballer Cathal Joyce on recovering from cardiac arrest at 25

Footballer Cathal Joyce was 25 and in the shape of his life. He was getting ready to line out for Athlone GFC in their club championship semi-final against Rosemount GFC at Cusack Park inMullingar. For Cathal, that day, September 13th 2015, was one he would never forget – but for all the wrong reasons.

Cathal Joyce

Cardiac Arrest

Just before the throw-in, Cathal collapsed and suffered a cardiac arrest. He was fortunate that he was able to be treated immediately at the county grounds. Team physio, his brother James, started CPR before a cardiac nurse from the crowd and Rosemount’s doctor took over. With three rounds of CPR and one shock from the stadium defibrillator, Cathal’s heart restarted.

But it is hard for Cathal to see any good fortune in that day. “People say that I was lucky that it happened where and when it happened but I don’t feel lucky. I did everything right in my life and look after myself by keeping fit and leading a healthy lifestyle and this happened to me. And then I look at other people who abused themselves and their bodies and they get away with it; it’s hard,” he admits.

Cathal explains that the first sign of trouble came as he was kicking the ball around before the match. “My legs went wobbly, my co-ordination started going. I asked one of the lads to bring me back to the dugout and he had to link me back. Then my vision went and I collapsed,” he says.

Cathal had suffered a cardiac arrest, which is significantly different to a heart attack. A heart attack happens when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked and the heart can’t get oxygen. If blood flow isn’t restored quickly, the section of heart muscle begins to die.

A cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood around the body and normal breathing stops. If people are not resuscitated quickly after cardiac arrest, they will die.

The following day, he underwent extensive tests in hospital and was diagnosed with hyperthropic cardiomyopathy, a rare heart condition where sudden cardiac arrest can be triggered by vigorous physical activity.

He had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) placed under his left collarbone and he was released from hospital five days later. An ICD is a miniature version of a defibrillator which is implanted in those at high risk of having a fatal rhythm problem. 

But he hasn’t let the major setback dictate the rest of his life and has confounded most expectations by returning to training and an active lifestyle.

Cathal played his first match just six months after his cardiac arrest and even managed to climb Croagh Patrick.

 "I know my limits"

“I haven’t looked back since. I was told initially that I should be just playing golf or walking but I knew my body was able for much more. I don’t play as much football and mainly do personaltraining in the gym. I know my limits,” he says.

He is critical of the outdated medical advice for life after a cardiac arrest and urges a more common-sense approach. “Before I went in for the operation, I was told I would have a normal healthy life afterwards, but after I woke up, I was told I would never play sport again. And I couldn’t get cardiac rehab because t’s only available if you had a heart attack or are at risk of having one, so I had to do it all myself,” he says.

“So much of the advice that I was given just didn’t make sense. How could swinging a golf club not put any more strain on your body that a similar arm raise in the gym? I think doctors are being too cautious and not allowing people to get back to some kind of normality. And I was even advised to put on weight because I was so lean. That was crazy advice, in my opinion.

“The main reason I got back to training so quickly was simply to prove a point that whatever the situation there is always a Plan B. I have met a number of people around the country who havereceived an ICD and are so scared to even go for a walk, nevermind return to sports.”

CPR and defibrillator training

Cathal would not be alive now were it not for the defibrillator and the people there trained to use it properly. He now trains teachers in schools around the country in CPR and helps to raise awareness of sudden cardiac death (SCD) and the vital role of basic life-saving skills. His Facebook page, HeartTalk, also plays a massive role in spreading awareness. He is involved in the out of hospital cardiac arrest group who are working with top cardiologists to review after-care for survivors.

“It is great to be able to give something back to the community. My main aim is to make sure as many people as possible know how to do CPR and operate a defibrillator. You never know when you may be in a situation to save somebody’s life,” says the Westmeath man.