Sarina's Bernie Dallow with cardiologist Dr Manish Kumar, who may well have saved the 66-year-old's life.
Sarina's Bernie Dallow with cardiologist Dr Manish Kumar, who may well have saved the 66-year-old's life. Luke Mortimer

Man's surprise diagnosis gets to the heart of the problem

A COLONOSCOPY was something of a blessing in disguise for Sarina's Bernie Dallow.

The 66-year-old, who has battled bowel cancer and had a previous heart attack, was undergoing the procedure a few months ago when doctors discovered his heart was slowly failing.

Suffering from atrial fibrillation, Mr Dallow's heart was only working at 30-40% capacity and beating at an unsettling 150 beats per minute at rest, leaving him at risk of a massive stroke.

Months on, following an electrical cardioversion performed by Dr Manish Kumar to restore regular heart rhythm, he joined Mater Miscordiae Hospital patients and staff on Monday to celebrate the cardiac rehabilitation program's 20th year in operation.

The program, which includes exercise training, education on heart healthy living, and counselling, has been a major part in Mr Dallow's recovery after the procedure, he said.

"I'm feeling 100% better than what I was before," Mr Dallow smiled.

"When they found out my heart was only operating at 30-40% the doctors said to me I couldn't go home, I had to go in to hospital because my heart was beating around 150 beats per minute and it's supposed to be around 60 to 100 beats. At that capacity, the heart doesn't get enough blood in it to pump around the body ... you could end up with blood clots which can travel to any part of your body.

"They needed to get the heartbeat down, to fix the rhythm. I started taking different medicines and got it down to 100. The tablets didn't work properly, so my heart had to be zapped, on the inside of my chest.

"So last Thursday I came in and he wasn't very confident he could get it working, but being an excellent cardiologist he (Dr Kumar) managed to do it.

"It got the rhythm into the beat, so my heart it back on track now."


Normal rhythm tracing (top) and atrial fibrillation (bottom).
Normal rhythm tracing (top) and atrial fibrillation (bottom). Bruce Blaus

Mr Dallow said he'd had a heart check about a year before his surprising diagnosis, but nothing abnormal was discovered.

That's why he's urged the public - no matter their age or perceived health - to drop into their GP's office for a quick check up.

"This damage was done over the past 12 months. I had an echocardiogram procedure last November and everything was okay. So, I think people should go and get tested a lot more often, at least every 12 months, because these things can happen very quickly.

"A heart attack could be coming. Not all heart attacks are a big 'bang' in the chest. They have all different symptoms.

"What's an hour or so out of your day for the cost of your life? Prevention is better than cure, fix it up early and you'll get through it."

Mr Dallow thanked Dr Kumar and Dani Guimelli, the hospital's cardiac rehabilitation facilitator, for helping him get back on his feet.

As Dr Kumar glanced around a hospital room filled by his recovering patients, including Mr Dallow, he said it was incredibly rewarding to see the results of his work.

"The first time Bernie walked into my room he was pretty puffed. He was in really bad shape when he walked in," he said.

"But now he's a changed man. He's feeling close to his usual self, but it will need continual effort from him, the rebab staff, myself ... we'll keep a close eye on him and hopefully all the damage reverses back to normal."

Mr Kumar said most people didn't know they had a heart condition until damage had been done.

"Irregular heartbeats, atrial fibrillation, which Bernie had, are one the most common arrhythmias and the problem is most people don't know they have it," he said.

"Unfortunately, it increases the risk of stroke by about five times. People can just feel a little tired, which they might think is down to a change in weather or something minor, until they see their doctor, they check pulse and blood pressure and realise something is wrong.

"A lot of people can get picked up when they have done significant damage already, or else they have symptoms of heart failure. Bernie had a lot of symptoms of that when he arrived."

Dr Kumar considers the cardiac rehabilitation program a crucial part of each and every cardiac patient's recovery.


The Mackay Mater Hospital's cardiac rehabilitation crew celebrates the program's 20th year of operation on Monday.
The Mackay Mater Hospital's cardiac rehabilitation crew celebrates the program's 20th year of operation on Monday. Luke Mortimer

Staying Heart Healthy

Heart Foundation Queensland clinical manager Karen Uhlmann said the Mater Hospital had been one of the first hospitals in the state to begin cardiac rehabilitation.

Programs like the Mater's, which are also offered at Mackay Base Hospital, are proven to offer substantially improved outcomes for cardiac patients.

"It's so important we keep these services intact, well resourced for the future of hearts in the Mackay community, because heart disease is on the increase," Ms Uhlmann said.

"We've seen so many amazing breakthroughs since the unit first opened. And these days the biggest problem people still have is not surviving a heart attack but managing their heart health over the long term.

"We've been able to keep more people alive with heart disease ... we've decreased death rates from heart disease, but we've increased rates of disability."

Ms Uhlmann said to maintain heart health it was important for people to visit their GP regularly, to manage their cholesterol and blood pressure, to exercise regularly, eat well, to not smoke and to look after their mental health.

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