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As Peter Robinson recuperates after heart attack: Paul Hopkins on showing the heart to never give up fighting

As First Minister Peter Robinson recuperates after having a coronary, Paul Hopkins - who underwent emergency cardiac surgery five years ago - says the secret to a truly successful recovery is living every day as if it is your last.

Published 05/06/2015

First Minister Peter Robinson out and about during a visit to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club just days after he suffered his health scare
First Minister Peter Robinson out and about during a visit to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down Golf Club just days after he suffered his health scare
Paul Hopkins

After I got out of hospital following my open-heart surgery, I started charging people a quid to see the scar. A clean cut that ran from sternum to halfway down my chest with two little holes either side where they had wired me up. The wires being pulled out without any funny pills was not funny. Like something one of those eerie magicians from the former East Germany would be adept at. Deep breath, the nurse said. Sugar, I said. And she pulled like a demented woman.

After I made less than the price of two pints in one sitting, with few takers wanting to gawk at my war wound, I realised this was not the way forward.

I had been given a second chance and I owed it to somebody, somewhere, to behave myself, to become moderate as in "moderation in all things" and not abuse my mended body. As I had done before. From now on I would be a holy temple.

But it's hard to keep on the straight and narrow without having to take on board the plethora of information that's out there on matters of health and wellbeing, not to mention trying to live forever.

My surgery was five years ago last month. I had not suffered a heart attack, but had a congenital hole in my heart. However, there is no doubt that the issue had been hugely compounded by years of an unhealthy lifestyle and neglect.

Before my surgery I had cancelled two referrals by my GP to see a heart consultant. And in the weeks preceding my "rapid response" admission to hospital, I ignored the telltale signs - shortness of breath, pain, sudden increase in fluid retention and the inclination to fall asleep in the middle of a working day - that I was, my specialist informed me, in danger of imminent death such was my degree of cardiac failure.

So, like First Minister Peter Robinson, I, too, experienced that "brush with mortality" that puts life into sharp perspective.

But has it taught me anything? Have I mended my ways? Have I been a good boy? More of that anon. First, some salient facts, according to Heart UK:

• In the last five years, 180,000 adults on average have died annually in the UK from heart and circulatory disease. That's three people every minute.

• Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common cause of death before 65 - one year short of Peter Robinson's age - accounting for one in six males and one in 10 females. Death from CHD before age 75 accounts for two in every five males and likewise females.

• Every five minutes, someone in the UK will have a heart attack.

• Every three minutes someone in the UK will have a stroke.

• There are 1.2 million men and 900,000 women living with chronic angina - with which the ability to live relies as much on the correct lifestyle as it does on medication.

• More than 1.6 million men and more than one million women are living with CHD.

• Overall, the cost to the UK economy is £19 billion a year - 46% direct healthcare costs, 34% productivity losses and 20% to informal care of people with heart and circulatory disease.

• In 2010/11 (the latest figures available), hospital admissions for CHD in Northern Ireland were 14,600 - 40 people every single day (England was 405,000, Scotland 50,200 and 24,300 in Wales).

There is a crisis in men's health on the island of Ireland, but all too few seem to be aware of it.

Let's spell it out: male life expectancy is 71 years - five years lower than women. Worse again, of those men who make it to 65 years of age, many will suffer from disease or disability, which is not a pretty prospect.

Men are more likely to die from the leading causes of death in this island. Three-quarters will die of the big three killers - heart disease/stroke, cancer and respiratory disease. Many of these are preventable or, if diagnosed in time, treatable.

Men in the poorest socio-economic groups are six times more likely to die from respiratory problems (due to poor diet and poor environment).

All agencies in Ireland and the UK dealing day in, day out with issues of health are at one on the key messages for prevention of heart disease, noted well by Peter Robinson: enjoy life, take time out for yourself and keep in touch with friends. Be active - at moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes most days. Eat more fruit and vegetables and less fat and fries. Stop smoking and cut alcohol to the recommended weekly units.

It is also recommended that you have regular blood pressure and cholesterol checks with your family doctor and that you know your family history, as well as both the signs and the symptoms of heart disease.

So, in the five years since my brush with my own mortality, have I been taking my own medicine and taking my own advice?

Depending on which book, magazine, newspaper story or pamphlet you read, or www. you surf, there's a wealth of difference of opinion on what someone like me - i.e. basically living dangerously since can't-remember-when - needs to actually do to become the holy temple.

Alcohol - 21 units. A day? Don't be silly. A week.

Sleep. Too little and you're a nervous wreck the next day. Too much and you're headed for the twilight world of dementia.

The recommended nightly shut-eye is given as eight hours. One third of a day, one third of the years you live. Hit 90 and you've been asleep for 30 years! Thirty! What have you missed?

Imagine, though, sleeping through for eight hours. Bliss. And not having to get up in the middle of the night to pee, then tossing and turning while trying to get back to the Land of Nod, wondering if perhaps you should have peed for longer. Just in case.

Then there's exercise. Important one, this. The basic premise is that you have to keep moving, keep on the go. Stop and you may never move again. It will be hip this and hip that or, worse, a commode. The final insult.

No, exercise is important. Any fool can fathom that. The thing is what form this exercise should be and how often we should do it. Are we talking marathon or marbles here?

And that's even before we get around to muscles and abs and tone, not to mention the thorny issue of food and vitamin supplements and steroids and milkshakes that half-heartedly promise you will live forever.

It is small wonder I am confused and that Peter Robinson concedes the difficulties. Although, with the greatest respect, the First Minister's diet the seven days before his heart attack of two Chinese meals, a Kentucky Fried Chicken meal, a McDonald's meal and a "cowboy supper" (sausages, beans and chips) was really tempting providence.

Like Peter Robinson, I really want to be good and grasp the second chance at life with all the force and might I can muster. And stare life fully in the face, head on, locked in mortal eye contact - all glowing absolutely positively. Have a good laugh and walk on.

On the positive side, I try and get a good walk in every day now, I seldom eat junk food, I have switched to e-cigarettes, I drink less alcohol and seldom fizzy drinks, eat much less red meat and more fruit and fibre, and I am now 18 lbs lighter than I was five years ago. On the more negative side, however, I still need to shed around another half-a-stone, I still drink too much alcohol, even if it is less that I used to, I don't eat enough greens and just never get seven or eight hours' sleep a night (I just cannot sleep that long).

But if I have learned one important thing in the last five years, it is this: live each day as if it were your last (this was echoed by Peter Robinson the other day when he alluded to his mother, whose diktat this was).

I do this and, in it, I find great joy. Joy in the minutiae of everyday life, and also in the human heart and what it is capable of physically and emotionally.

It is, indeed, a wonder - and one that deserves looking after.

Belfast Telegraph

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