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'I'd always been fit so when the doctor told me I'd had a heart attack, I told him it was indigestion ... now I'm cycling 130 miles a week'

More people than ever are surviving heart disease says a report this week from the British Heart Foundation. Helen Carson talks to Portadown man Geoff Vogan and Christine Harpur, from Whitehead both of whom suffered heart attacks.

While the incidence of cardiovascular disease is rising in the UK, fewer of us are dying from heart attacks, according to new findings from the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

The latest figures from the Oxford study on behalf of the charity revealed that coronary heart disease death rates decreased by 76% here from 1979 and 2013 - the biggest improvement in the UK.

Other findings showed that while there were 1.69 million visits to hospitals in the UK with cardiovascular disease (CVD which includes heart disease, strokes and peripheral artery disease) in 2013, the death rate has fallen from 341,000 in 1979 to 155,000 in 2014.

The charity attributes more effective diagnosis, treatment and prevention of heart disease to the dramatic decline in deaths.

Meanwhile, the BHF has warned that up to seven million people in the UK are currently living with CVD.

We talk to two people who survived heart attacks and tell us how the experience changed their lives.

Geoff Vogan (56), now retired, lives in Portadown with wife Collette (55). They have three children; Nicola (36), Darren (34) and Michelle (28) and five grandchildren, Cody (8), Jessica (4), Jack (3), Harvey (2) and Lucy (1). Geoff owns Portadown Fireplaces in the town, which is now run by his family. He says:

The day I suffered a heart attack was Saturday, May 19, 2012, and I remember that because there was a big rugby game on - Ulster vs Leinster in the Heinken Cup and the Championships League, too - which I had planned to watch later at the golf club.

I set off on my bike that morning at 11.30am, as myself and a friend were training for the Lap The Lough challenge, an 85-mile cycle. As part of our preparations we had planned to cycle to Newry and back, which is a 44 mile round trip.

As we were approaching Scarva I took a pain which felt like wind to me, but as we cycled on the pain got worse and moved into my shoulder. I called in at a shop in Scarva to get Rennie tablets for what I thought was indigestion, but they didn't have any, so I bought a pint of milk to ease it.

Of course it didn't work, so my cycling partner encouraged me to go home - the return journey of which included up to three miles at a 1,200 ft elevation. When I got home I had a shower, despite the fact I was still in pain, and was planning to go to the golf club.

My sister Janice had popped in for a visit and she remembered how our dad, Robert, who had angina, used to suffer a similar pain. She urged me to go to hospital, but as far as I was concerned I was off to watch the game, so I promised to go afterwards. Thankfully she insisted I go to A&E. Just 20 minutes after arriving in casualty and some tests the doctor told me I had suffered a heart attack and I was being admitted to a ward.

Even when the doctor came to see me I told him he had made a mistake - I was in denial. I was always fit, having played football for years and worked out at my home gym.

I said 'I think you'll find I have indigestion' and that I should be watching the rugby. By this time the hospital had contacted Collette, who had been out shopping and she was panicking. The doctor told me that I should say thank you to my sister for getting me to hospital when she had, otherwise had I gone ahead with my plans I might not be here now. He told me if I'd gone to Newry I wouldn't have made it back home again, as one of the arteries near my heart was completely blocked.

The next day I had a stent put in one artery, with another implanted in another artery six weeks later.

When I got out of hospital I bought five bikes to give to friends and family to encourage them to ride with me to raise money for life-saving research into raising awareness about heart disease.

Since then I have been involved in numerous fundraising cycles, both here and the latest in Lake Garda in Italy, with the total monies raised in the region of £20,000 plus.

After my heart attack I ride up to 120-130 miles a week, 200 on occasions - three days a week in the summer and two days in the winter at a spin class.

Having survived a heart attack, I thought 'now I want to give something back' and that is my intention. I also started Portadown Cycling Club, which has 80 members.

There is a history of heart disease in my family - I lost my brother Ennis who died from it when he was 62. And my sisters both had stents fitted. I stepped back from my business, which I started in 1983, following the heart attack.

I believe I was spared for a reason and I believe that reason to be raising awareness and money for research."

'Women don’t always have the same symptoms as men'

Christine Harpur (70), a part-time training consultant, lives in Whitehead, Co Antrim. She is  married with a grown-up family.  She says:

I had a heart attack four years ago while I was at the gym. One morning I was on the treadmill and taking a drink of water — then I felt an indigestion-like pain under my collar bone.

At this stage I wasn’t concerned and just went onto another machine. When I told my husband about the pain he told me to get checked out, but as I hadn’t had any pain in my arm I felt that it really was just indigestion. I went back to the gym for the next three days, but by the Thursday I still had the pain.

My husband wanted me to go to my GP as he feared I might have had a heart attack. All I could say was ‘do I look like a person who has had a heart attack?’ I went to the gym all the time. I reluctantly went to the GP who asked me had I felt clammy or nauseous at the gym, and I was told to go to A&E.

I was working in Belfast city centre, so agreed to go to the Royal Victoria Hospital that afternoon where the doctors did some tests and quickly established that I’d had a heart attack. Even when they were wheeling me into the ward I still didn’t believe what had happened. I asked them if the agent they had found in my blood was present at any other time — they told me, yes, when you’re pregnant so at 66 I could rule that out.

It was pretty scary when I realised that I had actually had a heart attack as it was the last thing I had ever expected. I was very, very lucky. Now I would walk over coals for the staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital and the British Heart Foundation because they were wonderful.

The following week I had a stent fitted and now, thanks to funding, there are 24-hour Cath labs (to diagnose blockages of the arteries) in both Belfast and Londonderry.

Afterwards I had to attend cardiac rehab which I didn’t want to go to. I assumed it would be old ladies and gentlemen sitting around talking about their heart attacks but, every time I go, there is a really interesting and stimulating discussion about issues such as the physiology of the heart.

There is also an exercise programme which is tailored to each sufferer. And I wasn’t allowed back to my gym until I had completed the eight-week course.

Now, I go to the gym three to four times a week and I ensure that I follow the advice of building up the heart rate then slowing it down again.

Women need to be aware that we get heart attacks, too. While we are protected by oestrogen for most of our life up until the menopause, once the oestrogen levels start to change we are just as vulnerable to heart attacks, if not more so, than men.

Women don’t necessarily suffer the same symptoms as men, so if you feel unwell the best advice is to go and get checked out.

I was extremely fortunate but it was hard coming to terms with the fact that I’d had a heart attack. I was so active and fit and didn’t think I would have any problems until now. Before the attack I thought I was slowing up and it was a result of my fitness levels and age, but all the time it was the run-up to a heart attack.

Had I not got help when I did it would’ve happened again and been much more serious. If it hadn’t been for my husband I wouldn’t have sought out medical help at all. Clearly there was some other force at work.”

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