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‘If my consultant hadn’t dropped into the hospital on his day off, I would probably have died ... now I’m really excited about becoming a dad’

After falling ill twice at work, teacher Paul McLean, who lives in Co Down, was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate. After his second cardioversion treatment, Paul suffered a severe stroke. He talks to Stephanie Bell

Positive approach: Paul McLean
Positive approach: Paul McLean

By Stephanie Bell

Just a few years ago Paul McLean was devouring a book a day in his thirst for knowledge and enjoying a career as a cool young English teacher bringing the subject alive through creative use of modern hip hop music.

Today he is unable to read, struggles to write and has to rest his voice for a day before he can do this interview. After chatting for an hour he is so exhausted he needs to sleep.

Despite the challenge even a simple conversation presents to him, Paul is determined to add his voice to a new awareness campaign to highlight a condition which caused him to have a catastrophic stroke three years ago.

Local charity Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS), in partnership with retailer Mace, has launched a new campaign to highlight the major risk of stroke for people who have Atrial Fibrillation - or AF.

AF is a heart condition that causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate and increases the risk of stroke by five times.

Almost 40,000 people have already been diagnosed in Northern Ireland but, according to NICHS, there could be thousands more living with the condition undetected.

Paul (42), who is originally from Belfast, now lives in Magheralin, Co Down, with his wife Suzanne (41), who is director of the Youth for Christ charity.

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They have recently moved into a beautiful new home and are thrilled to be expecting their first child in November.

Robbed of so much after suffering a stroke in June 2016, Paul is nonetheless upbeat and positive about his life and says he is grateful for every day. He had to learn to walk and talk again and as he moves about his kitchen chatting and making coffee, remarkably there is no hint of what he has come through.

Every day is still a struggle, but Paul has found a new purpose through helping other stroke victims by sharing this positive attitude at forums and support groups.

He is currently on TV as part of the Stroke Association awareness campaign and wants to get the message out about preventing it happening in the first place.

Growing up in Belfast he enjoyed a successful career as an actor on stage, TV and movies (Mad about Mambo) for 12 years before becoming a teacher.

He recalls: "I was fairly successful as an actor. I was a big guy so I tended to get any roles for a heavier person. At the time my wife's job was taking her away a lot and acting was doing the same so I decided to give it up so that we could see each other more often.

Paul McLean and his wife Suzanne
Paul McLean and his wife Suzanne

"I had volunteered as a youth worker in the Rainbow Factory School of Performing Arts for 10 years and I realised through working with kids that I might enjoy teaching.

"I actually hated English at school but fell in love with it when I left school. It was only when I started to read poetry for myself and not because I had to for an exam that I started to really enjoy it.

"Back then I would have read a book every day, mostly factual books and poetry.

"I wanted to help the kids relate to English more and make it relevant to them and help them find their own way into it and we had a number of different ways of doing that including using hip hop music."

Paul had been teaching for just a year in Dromore High School when he first took ill in December 2012.

He suspected he was having a heart attack and was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for your heart to pump blood to the rest of your body.

He was put on medication and not long after was in the classroom when he started to feel unwell once more.

Again he was convinced he was having a heart attack and his first thoughts were for his pupils. Rather than traumatise them he took himself off to the toilets.

He recalls: "It was near Christmas and the exams were over. I love peanut butter and coffee, they are my two vices.

"One of the A-level pupils had brought in peanut butter cookies and offered me one. I took a taste of it and immediately had this really bad pain across my chest. I thought it was indigestion but then I had this pressure across my chest.

"I thought 'this is a heart attack and I better leave the room' as I didn't want to distress the pupils. I went to the loos and I was sitting there and realised no one knew where I was and I was sitting on the toilet having a heart attack so I texted a colleague."

At hospital it was found that Paul's blood pressure was an incredibly high 240/144 (normal is 140/90) but he wasn't having a heart attack.

Paul McLean with his wife Suzanne
Paul McLean with his wife Suzanne

At this point he was told that cardiomyopathy can lead to AF which he had never heard of before. He had to have more time off work and although the school was 100% supportive he decided it wasn't fair on the pupils and he left.

He says: "The school was amazing, but that was twice I had to be off sick and these kids were doing their GCSEs and to me it was going to affect their education so I resigned.

"I became a substitute teacher which allowed me to still go in and work with kids and then I got a job in Brownlow Integrated College in Craigavon covering maternity leave.

"Cardiomyopathy is genetic but AF is something I had never heard of before and I knew it was serious but I really had that attitude that it wouldn't happen to me."

Paul soon experienced what is was like "to be in AF". It occurs when the heart is out of rhythm and he explains it as a weird feeling as if his heart was beating inside his throat. He has had an AF episode six times.

The condition is controlled through cardioversion treatment which he has now had five times.

Cardioversion aims to get an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) back to normal by sending electric signals to the heart through electrodes placed on the chest.

It was between his second and third cardioversion treatment that Paul had a severe stroke.

Fortunately his wife Suzanne was at home and called an ambulance immediately.

Paul's brain started to shut down and he doesn't remember most of what happened next.

But what did happen was an amazing set of circumstances that saved Paul's life.

On realising just how severely ill Paul was, the paramedics decided to take him straight to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast rather than nearby Craigavon.

The consultant who carries out a very rare and life-saving brain procedure known as a trombectomy had just popped into the hospital briefly when Paul's scans came through.

Paul was so ill that Suzanne was advised to call his family.

His right-hand side was paralysed and he started to lose movement in the left side too, showing that the clot was also reaching the right side of his brain.

Just as his CT scan was finished, Dr Ian Rennie who wasn't working as it was a Saturday spotted the scan as he popped into his office to get something.

He immediately decided to operate and within just 11 minutes he had removed the clot from Paul's brain.

Paul says: "It took just 11 minutes to save my life. If he hadn't dropped into the hospital that day I would probably have died and if I had survived the stroke I would have been paralysed on both sides and not able to talk at all."

Paul had to learn to talk and walk again, a long slow process.

The long term effects have been life changing. His motor skills have been effected and he suffers extreme fatigue.

He can only speak for three to four hours in a day as it exhausts his brain. If he knows he is going to have to speak for a period of time he keeps quiet for a day in advance. He can only read short messages and can no longer read a book as he forgets what happened after one page.

Paul still has AF and is terrified of another stroke but he is incredibly upbeat. He slimmed down from 35 stone to 17 stone and is determined to recover as much as possible.

He adds: "I didn't die! You have to find the positives and forget about the negatives. I enjoy talking at stroke survivor groups and forums about how it has affected me and asking others how they have coped.

"Strokes can be incredibly sad but my attitude now is life should be happy. I have an amazing wife who does everything she can to make my life easier."


And he adds: "I am really excited about becoming a dad. It is just amazing. I like challenges and I really miss reading so I have decided to learn how to play the guitar. There is life after stroke."

The NICHS awareness campaign is aimed at educating the public about what Atrial Fibrillation is, its links to stroke and prompting anyone who thinks they might have the symptoms to take an AF on-the-spot test at an NICHS Well-Check clinic or contact their GP.

Anyone can have AF, but the people most susceptible tend to be over 50, have diabetes, hyper-tension or high blood pressure. Both men and women are just as likely to have the condition, so it's important that people know they can take a simple test to find out.

If you are found to have the condition it may be possible to hugely reduce the risk of stroke through medication.

Councillor Deirdre Hargey, who recently stood down as Lord Mayor of Belfast, took the AF test as part of the launch at Belfast City Hall.

She said: "AF is a little-known condition and NI Chest Heart and Stroke is making massive strides in highlighting its existence and promoting the test for AF to thousands of people.

"It's so important to look after our health so, especially if you're over 50 and have diabetes, take a moment to learn more about the signs of AF."

The test for AF only takes a minute and involves simply placing your fingers on a small pad.

Find out more about Atrial Fibrillation at www.nichs.org.uk

How to recognise symptoms of AF

Atrial Fibrillation is an irregular and often rapid heart rate that can increase your risk of stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.

During Atrial Fibrillation, the heart's two upper chambers beat chaotically and irregularly - out of co-ordination with the two lower chambers. Atrial Fibrillation symptoms often include heart palpitations, shortness of breath and weakness.

Episodes of atrial fibrillation can come and go or you may develop Atrial Fibrillation that doesn't go away and may require treatment.

Although Atrial Fibrillation itself usually isn't life-threatening, it is a serious medical condition that sometimes requires emergency treatment.

Some people with Atrial Fibrillation have no symptoms and are unaware of their condition until it's discovered.

Simple test only takes a few minutes

The NICHS awareness campaign is aimed at educating the public about what Atrial Fibrillation is, its links to stroke and prompting anyone who thinks they might have the symptoms to take an AF on-the-spot test at an NICHS Well-Check clinic or contact their GP.

Anyone can have AF, but the people most susceptible tend to be over 50, have diabetes, hyper-tension or high blood pressure. Both men and women are just as likely to have the condition, so it’s important that people know they can take a simple test to find out.

If you are found to have the condition it may be possible to hugely reduce the risk of stroke through medication.

Councillor Deirdre Hargey, who recently stood down as Lord Mayor of Belfast, took the AF test as part of the launch at Belfast City Hall.

She said: “AF is a little-known condition and NI Chest Heart and Stroke is making massive strides in highlighting its existence and promoting the test for AF to thousands of people.

“It’s so important to look after our health so, especially if you’re over 50 and have diabetes, take a moment to learn more about the signs of AF.”

The test for AF only takes a minute and involves simply placing your fingers on a small pad.

Find out more about Atrial

Fibrillation at www.nichs.org.uk

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