Rowena Walsh talks to Tipperary fire officer Dave Carroll who discovered he had a serious heart condition following two strokes
Dave Carroll was 45 years old when a stroke saved his life. The chief fire officer for Tipperary was getting ready to go to work one morning when he was unable to fix his tie. His hands simply couldn’t manage the necessary co-ordination.
He got into the car to bring his three children to school and he couldn’t put it into reverse gear. “It wasn’t that I didn’t have the physical power, it was just that the brain wasn’t talking to the hand,” says Dave.
As usual, Dave went to work that day in January 2017. It wasn’t until the evening, at the prompting of his wife, that he visited his doctor, who immediately sent him to University Hospital Limerick. There, the medical staff determined that Dave had had two strokes. The mystery was why.
Every year, approximately 10,000 people in Ireland have a stroke and around 2,000 die from the effects. Stroke accounts for more deaths than breast, prostate, and bowel cancers combined. One in six people will have a stroke at some time in their life. Most are over the age of 65, but it can strike at any age, even affecting children.
Dave was fit, healthy, and had none of the usual indicators of stroke such as high cholesterol or blood pressure. Two weeks later, on the day he was due to be discharged from hospital, the mystery was solved when medical staff discovered he had a hole in his heart.
The 20mm hole had been there since his birth, and it had caused the stroke by allowing a little clot of blood to go the wrong way through the lungs and into his brain.
“A stroke of good luck,” is the way Dave describes the events that led him to Limerick University Hospital. He says if the hole in his heart hadn’t been found then, doctors told him he could have experienced even more serious health problems before he turned 50.
Dave says that before his stroke, the hole in his heart hadn’t had any effect on his life.
Although the hole had to be repaired, doctors couldn’t operate for two months until Dave had fully recovered from his stroke. “I was sent home on house arrest and a lot of medication.”
His heart operation took place in Dublin’s Mater Hospital on March 31, 2017. “They had to go into my heart and put a patch on either side of the hole, then leave it for a number of months to knit up and cover over.”
He returned to work at the end of May. “I went back to the Mater six months later and I got a clean bill of health.” While he was recuperating, he began to think of doing a triathlon. “I was anxious to have a goal. I loved every minute of the training.”
He achieved his aim in June this year when he completed the Valentia Island triathlon. Even before that, in March, Dave got involved with two of his colleagues in setting up the Knockanacree Woods park run, which he describes as “probably the toughest in the country”. He regularly takes part in the 5k run along with his family.
He got some help with his triathalon training from assistant chief fire officer, Paul Gallagher. Coincidentally, just before Dave had his stroke, he had been working with Setanta College, a provider of sports courses based in Tipperary, to develop a wellness programme for firefighters in the county.
Dave says that “two mechanics work full-time doing preventative maintenance on our 55 vehicles, but we felt that we could do more for our other asset, which is our 130 firefighters”. A firefighter in every station is being trained as a strength and conditioning coach, led by Paul.
“The people from Setanta looked at our training courses to determine what it is that a firefighter does and the movements they do when they’re climbing ladders, lifting pumps and rolling out hoses.”
The aim is to make the firefighters better at their job and, more importantly, less likely to get injured while they’re doing it.
The job of a firefighter is incredibly difficult, not just physically but also mentally, says Dave. He points out that the firefighters in all 12 Tipperary stations are locals, so it’s likely that they will know the people involved in a fire or road accident.
“It can be quite distressing. We have counselling systems in place, but there’s a huge mental benefit to the exercises as well.”
There is also some fun too. Tomorrow, September 14, the inaugural Setanta Fire Service Games will take place. Firefighters from all 12 stations in Tipperary will compete against each other in a series of physical and mental tests. It is hoped that it will eventually expand outside of the county.
Dave is looking forward to it. “This time, two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to contemplate participating in it. I’ll be one of the oldest taking part, but it will be fun. We’re feeding off the success of the Tipperary hurling teams.”