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Our message to the First Minister: you can be better than ever after having a heart scare

As Peter Robinson is treated in hospital for a cardiac-related condition, two local personalties, sports commentator Jackie Fullerton and entertainer Alan Simpson, tell Stephanie Bell how they are fighting fit again after a similar ordeal

Messages of support have flooded in from well-wishers to Peter Robinson and his family since the First Minister was admitted to hospital early yesterday suffering from a suspected heart attack.

Mr Robinson was admitted shortly after 9am, after feeling unwell at home, with what was later described by senior DUP sources as a heart-related condition.

The First Minster (66) was taken to the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald, and then transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.

The Royal is Northern Ireland’s largest hospital and the main centre for cardiology.

As the Robinson family requested privacy while they waited on test results, politicians from across all parties nationally and locally wished Mr Robinson a speedy recovery.

Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted a message: “My best wishes to Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson who is in hospital. I hope he has a speedy recovery.”

And, as his family maintained a bedside vigil, there were also words of encouragement from two well-known local personalities who know exactly how fearful they must be.

BBC presenters Jackie Fullerton and Alan Simpson are both fighting fit and enjoying great health despite having each suffered a heart attack some years ago. It is seven years since Alan was admitted to hospital with a heart attack — now he says he’s never felt better.

Jackie, who celebrated his 72nd birthday last Friday, underwent a triple heart by-pass 11 years ago, and says he too has never looked back.

Both men said their thoughts were with Mr Robinson and his family as they shared their inspirational stories of life after heart trouble.

Entertainer and former radio host Alan Simpson, who lives in Portrush, suffered a heart attack in 2008. He says:

My advice to people who have had a heart attack would be not to look back but just to look forward. With medical help and a little bit of knowledge you will go on.

I know it's an unusual analogy but to me it's like a car. If something goes wrong with it, you take it to a garage and they fix it - and it's the same with a heart attack.

Since I had my heart attack, I have been a lot healthier and can do many more things.

I am in the sea practically every other day of the year. I was in the water for an hour yesterday and probably will be again later today - before my heart attack, I couldn't have done that.

I had an attack about seven years ago, and at the time I was smoking about 20-30 cigarettes a day and working hard - there is also a history of heart disease in my family.

My father Sam died of a heart attack when I was just 10-years-old.

With me it showed itself as a really bad toothache. I rang my dentist who was away skiing and probably saved my life because he wasn't at his surgery.

The pain in my jaw just kept getting worse and worse so I rang the hospital and they told me to come in so that they could take a look.

I went to the Causeway Hospital and within about 10-15 minutes they were able to tell me that I'd had a heart attack.

I pass this on because most people don't realise toothache is a symptom, and quite a common one.

I've heard of many elderly people being found because they took a toothache and poured themselves a glass of brandy or put some clove drops on it hoping to sooth it.

The pain down your arm and in your chest are just soap opera heart attacks. I had to have surgery to get two stents in, and then go back for another two - so now I have stereo stents which are great.

It is a big shock when are you told and there is a terrible element of fear, especially when you're in hospital and you are thinking it's your heart and that is the main organ.

The cardiologists and their team are nothing short of brilliant. There is a certain element of calm in a cardiac ward. There is no panic, it's all very matter-of-fact.

They are experts in their field who are honest with you and tell you this is what you can and can't do.

It was all very positive with me. They got me in time and were able to operate and told me if I played my cards right everything would be pretty rosy.

I did make some changes to my lifestyle. I gave up smoking and I did change my diet a little bit, although my diet wasn't too bad before. Since my operations, I have felt a lot better than I did before the attack. I can breathe more easily and my fitness is completely different to what it was before.

I do stand-up paddle boarding and it takes a fair bit of effort and fitness, and there is no way I could have done it before I was ill.

A few friends of mine have suffered heart attacks and I always tell them to look forward, that they are going to see a lot more of life.

My advice to anyone is if you have a stressful day, go to the beach. Having a heart attack cannot only change but extend your life - a great example of this is Jackie Fullerton, who recently celebrated his 108th birthday!

The First Minister is in safe hands. Our hospital specialists are called experts for a reason; they can do what most of us would consider the impossible. We have this general fear of hospital and we shouldn't have as the staff all know exactly what they are doing."

TV sports presenter Jackie Fullerton (72) from Ballymena had triple heart by-pass surgery in 2004. Jackie is married to Linda and has three sons Darren, Nicky and Gareth and six grandchildren. He is still working as a football commentator and is a popular host for sporting events in Northern Ireland. He says:

I had pins and needles in my shoulders for about a month, it felt strange but it kept going away, so I didn’t think too much about it. Then one night in bed it became very uncomfortable and it stayed.

Eventually, I said to my wife that something was going on and I thought I should go to the hospital and get it checked out. She said she would ring our son Gareth to bring me and I remember saying that I felt well enough to drive myself, but Linda insisted on calling Gareth to take me.

They did some tests and told me I had a minor heart attack. I spent four days in Antrim Hospital when they decided I needed stents as there was no bad damage to my heart, so I was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for the surgery.

Two days after I had the stents in and two days before I was due to go home I got really bad angina and started sweating profusely — that was the first time I got really scared and thought ‘this could be it’.

At the same time, I was very calm about it and they gave me medication to get me through the night before more tests the next morning.

The consultant told me that 12 in 200 stents block and that had happened to me. I asked him what that meant and he put his hand on my shoulder and told me I would need bypass surgery.

I just said “whatever it takes” and he must have thought I was very brave. It wasn’t until I got back to the ward that I thought “Oh God, bypass surgery”.

It was October 2004, and I had a triple by-pass and was in hospital for seven weeks. That was just over 11 years ago and I haven’t had a bit of trouble since. Within two and a half months, I was back on live television.

From the First Minister’s point of view I think the fact he has an alert political mind will help his recovery. One of the most difficult aspects of suffering a heart attack is the mental side rather than the physical side.

The body will heal itself, but it can be a very dark time. You do think that life as you knew it is over and the good days are gone. You feel there is only recuperation left in your life and that you will be coping at a lower level.

It is par for the course having the blues after that and it lasts about six weeks to two months. The doctors will usually put you on a mild antidepressant to help you through it. But it is important to rest and build yourself up, and find your sea legs again.

During your recuperation there is only so much TV you can watch or newspapers you can read, which leaves you with a lot of time to think and to look down at the very raw scars on your chest and leg which leaves you thinking “woe is me”.

That was the hardest part for me. I was very grateful that the damage to my heart was minimal.

It is good to get back to work and get out of the house and network with people and colleagues get your mind off it. When I was in hospital I thought of Graeme Souness, who is still a football pundit and a friend. He had bypass surgery at 38 despite being one of the fittest guys, a non-smoker and professional athlete.

That struck a chord with me — I also had a clipping about Bill Clinton’s heart bypass with a quote from his wife Hilary describing it as ‘having dodged a bullet’.

It is amazing how even in hospital your mental side takes over and I cried for four days about four times a day while I was there.

It is a dark period, but you do what you have to do to get through it.

I was 72 on Friday and Linda was 70 on Saturday — we’re just back from a week in Majorca.

Linda didn’t want any fuss so we just enjoyed a quiet family meal with our three boys and their wives in a restaurant in Belfast — and had an evening of laughter.

I’m on my way today to the BBC today and I still do a bit of corporate work, and speaking at sports dinners because I enjoy it. The good thing is I get to choose what I do now.

The next worry at my age is the onset of Alzheimer’s which is very prevalent these days.

I like keeping my mind active and I have a little bit of pressure — nothing close to the pressure I was under during my career — and I think everyone needs a little bit of pressure.

We are very blessed to have six glorious grandchildren and my message is that there is life after heart trouble. Also keep smiling; a sense of humour helps.”

Warning signs to look out for

A heart attack — medically known as myocardial infarction — happens when a blood clot blocks flow of blood to the heart muscle.

Heart disease and heart failure don’t show the same signs for everyone and it is possible to have a heart attack and not feel any chest pain.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Sweating more than usual — this could be an early warning sign of heart problems. Pumping blood through clogged arteries takes more effort from your heart, so your body will sweat more to try to keep your body temperature down during the extra exertion. If you experience cold sweats or clammy skin, then you should consult your doctor. Night sweats are also a common symptom for women experiencing heart troubles
  • Chest pain, pressure and discomfort — while chest pains do not occur in every heart attack, they are the most recognisable symptom for good reason. Chest tightness is a common sign of a heart attack. People have described this sensation as feeling like an elephant is standing on their chest
  • Other pains in the body — while most people associate a heart attack with pain working its way down the left arm, pain can also appear in other parts of the body including the upper abdomen, shoulder, back, throat, teeth or jaw
  • Fatigue and shortness of breath — exhaustion and shortness of breath can also be a sign of heart trouble as a response to the extra stress on your heart. If you often feel tired or exhausted for no reason, it could be a sign that something is wrong
  • Indigestion, nausea and vomiting can be common before a heart attack. Because heart attacks usually occur in older people who typically have more indigestion problems, these symptoms often get dismissed as heartburn or another food-related complication
  • If you suspect that you or someone you know may be having a heart attack, dial 999 immediately

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