Imagine for a moment, how someone so defining in your life can be there one minute and gone the next. It’s the kind of thing we can all relate to when watching television drama’s but never think that it could happen to us in real life.
5½ years ago, my Grandad collapsed at home. Having been checked over by our GP in Ixworth, he came home and rested and within a short time, was back to his old self. Two months later, the same thing happened again and this time, after a short stay at the West Suffolk Hospital, he was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation (AF), an irregular heartbeat which meant he required medication for the rest of his life. Besides being medicated, he suffered no reoccurring symptoms and was soon back to leading an independent life of caring for my Nan whilst enjoying his weekly indulgence of carpet bowls. As his immediate family, we relied upon the fact he had been medicated following his diagnosis and had no real concept of what the ultimate worst-case scenario could be with this condition.
That was until one Sunday evening almost a year ago. Having drifted off to sleep in front of the television, Grandad suffered a massive stroke. He was rapidly responded to by a team of outstanding paramedics before being swiftly transferred to the West Suffolk. I was two hours away when I got the call and it kick-started a chain of events that will remain indelibly marked in my memory forever. The stroke was so dense that he lost all ability to speak and was paralysed down his right side. He knew who we were but had no means of communicating to us at all. As he was treated by the amazing clinical staff that evening, whilst his condition was serious, any threat to his life had not even been considered let alone mentioned.
However, upon leaving him in hospital at midnight that night, both my Mum and I knew that life was never going to be the same again. Just before 4am, the call any next-of-kin dreads came through. Grandad had suffered a cardiac arrest and despite every best effort to save him, he passed away. Whilst the death of a loved one is always a harrowingly traumatic life-changing experience, in our case the effects were to be huge. Grandad was the primary carer for my dear Nan whom she had relied more and more upon in recent years thanks to debilitating arthritis. With no warning whatsoever, our family dynamics had changed irrevocably.
In the days and weeks following his untimely death, and with an underlying keen interest in different aspects of medicine and especially where it has affected me or my family, I wanted to know more about what happened to Grandad and one of the people I turned to first was the GP who had looked after our family for all the time he had been at Ixworth Surgery, and who had a speciality interest in Cardiology – Professor Dr John Cannon. To say that conversation was an eye-opener is an understatement. Not only did I find out John and I had lost close loved-ones to the same thing, I then discovered that in my Grandad’s case, it could have been avoidable. By suffering from AF, blood from the upper chambers of the heart collects by clotting in the left atrial appendage. Without any meaningful anticoagulation, the clot will eventually move into the carotid artery and cause major visual impairment or a massive stroke that more often affects the left side of the brain that controls our cognitive and motor abilities. Treating Atrial Fibrillation just by Aspirin alone is not enough and that is all my Grandad was treated with. Robust research and clinical trials have now proven that by being prescribed the right anticoagulants (blood thinners) reduces the risk of a stroke by AT LEAST 70% which far outweighs the risk of bleeding in the vast majority of patients.
In West Suffolk alone, 2,500 people have undiagnosed AF and over 65’s are the demographic most susceptible to suffering from AF. That’s 2,500 families that could be at risk of suffering what my family suffered almost a year ago. I felt that whilst there’s nothing that can change our family’s sufferance, telling our story by helping to raise vital awareness may save one family from going through the trauma and heartache that we did. Next time you see your GP, even if you have no history of cardiac problems, ask them to check your rhythm – you might be one of those undiagnosed people whose life can be saved or prolonged by getting the right treatment.
Written by Ben Lord