Work had brought the founder of Heartaid, the only mobile cardiac screening company in Ireland, to the English capital. Ever since they inked the contract with the GPA to provide the service to all inter-county senior football and hurling squads, Donovan has been doing the rounds putting elite GAA panels through the test.
He had been out in Ruislip testing the members of London’s football and hurling setups when he returned to his hotel room last Saturday to take in the Ireland-England Six Nations game.
“I flicked over to Sky Sports after the match and it was all over the news about the Bolton player collapsing on the pitch,” he said.
“It was a coincidence really that I happened to be over doing screening at the time. It was very sad to see but I also thought it was great to see the brilliant reaction of the medical staff present. Even this week I’ve found, by the amount of enquiries we’ve got, that the story has raised awareness. It’s unfortunate it takes a serious situation like that for headlines to be generated.”
The subsequent avalanche of tributes and messages of support to Muamba this week has been heart-warming, yet has also thrown the issue of cardiac problems amongst sports people into the spotlight. Donovan’s background is originally in healthcare management and, having worked in the US for a radiology group, the Cork native returned to work in Blackrock Clinic in Dublin. The tragedies involving Irish sports stars like Cormac McAnallen and John McCall got him thinking about the issue of SADS (Sudden Adult Death Syndrome).
“I wondered what was the cause of it and was there any solution. I read up on it and found that in countries like Italy, anyone who plays organised sport has to get the mobile cardiac screening done. That has reduced SADS deaths in Italy by 89% over the last 25 years.
“I consulted with a lot of cardiologists both at home and abroad and the feedback was that there was a need for cardiac screening.”
It took Donovan, whose sporting background is in rugby having played for Cork clubs UCC and Dolphin, six months to get the pieces in place before Heartaid was born at the end of 2010. A study last year by the GAA’s Medical Advisory Committee found all players under 35 should receive cardiac screening and this led Donovan to contact officials about offering his services to inter-county teams.
“We’d talked to a lot of sports medicine doctors and they were aware of us. I made contact with the GAA and Dessie Farrell in the GPA and told them about our service. We did a pilot with the Dublin minor team, which Dessie managed, last year in February 2011. After a successful pilot, we agreed a contract with the GPA to screen test all inter-county hurling and football teams.”
The test that Heartaid offers is simple. On the day we meet, the sports scholarship students in UCC are undertaking the cardiac screening with Kevin O’Driscoll and Liam Jennings, members of Cork’s All-Ireland U21 winning side in 2009, and current Kerry U21 footballer Mark Reen amongst those being tested. Donovan guides me through the process with the first step involving the completion of a personal and family history questionnaire. A physical examination with a doctor then takes place where an individual’s Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated. It’s followed by a heart exam with a stethoscope to detect any murmurs or irregular heart rhythms before testing for radial and femoral pulses. The final step involves a 12-lead electro cardiogram examination with cardiac technician Jimmy Ashraf conducting the test. Within 15 minutes it is completed and in 10 days I receive the results which are also relayed to my GP. In an inter-county setup, a team doctor also receives the results. People are sometimes unsure what to expect,” admits Donovan. “But the test is painless and doesn’t take long. If something is picked up, it can then be tested further.”
The contract with the GPA ensures Donovan is hitting the road most weekends. When we met he had been screening the Laois footballers the previous Saturday morning and went on to test the two Derry inter-county squads the following day. Next weekend the Armagh hurlers are his port of call. But the service is not just GAA based with rugby sides like the Connacht academy and the senior team also getting tested while Irish hockey player John Jermyn is one of those who has a testimonial supporting the service on their website.
“We’re the only company of the kind currently in operation in Ireland. But I think it was definitely needed. The goal is to reduce the cases of SADS in Ireland and raise awareness, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
* For more information see www.heartaid.ie