Sudden Cardiac Death.
Greg and Elsa Leonard
Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Independent, 21st January 2009.
Francis Leonard was a fit 29 year old. The youngest of four boys, he had never been happier. He’d just completed a Masters, and was excelling at his job with Intel. He’d moved in with his girlfriend, Sandra McKay.
Francis was never sick. He wouldn’t take, even, an aspirin and his GP hadn’t seen him since he was 13. So when he died, suddenly; during a GAA match on 18th November, 2006, everyone was stunned.
“Francis was so diligent,” says his father, Greg. “And he loved keeping fit. That week he’d rung his club, Erin’s Isle to explain he had to work late and would miss training.
“Normally it was ‘no train, no game,’ but they said, ‘you are our number one player.’ And he swam, on the Friday, to make up for it. He swam 40 lengths.”
Greg and Elsa were off to England that weekend for a party.
“It was my brother’s birthday, and we were going as a surprise,” explains Greg. “We saw Francis on that Thursday. I remember seeing him out to the car. I gave him a big hug.”
Sandra remembers that Saturday morning.
“I remember him sitting on the couch, and the way he looked at me. We were so happy. We were watching ‘True Romance,’ his all time favourite film, and I had to run off. He came to the door.
“I went to the RDS for ‘Off the Rails’ with a friend. I bought a dress for the Intel Christmas party, then we went to Liffey Valley to eat. I had one bite of a chip, then my phone went. It was Francis’s brother, Greg. He said, ‘It’s Francis. It’s serious.’
“I completely panicked, and jumped into the car. And, now I think back I went the longest way to Blanchardstown. I ran into the hospital and saw someone on a table. It looked like Francis. And there was a priest standing there and I thought, ‘oh s**t.’”
Francis had died within seconds. The frantic efforts to revive him at the grounds; and the hour doctors worked on him in A and E, were all in vain.
“I still relive that day,” says Sandra. “I still feel the same pain. Every detail is so clear.”
Meanwhile, Greg and Elsa were shopping in Stevenage.
“And suddenly, I was so cold,” says Greg. “I told Elsa, and she thought I was mad. It was a lovely warm day.”
The phone started ringing at 4.00 pm. And though nobody actually told the couple that Francis was dead, they knew.
“I wanted to get back to Sandra, to see how she was doing,” says Elsa. “We flew from Stanstead, and she was at the airport with the boys.”
The house was full for the next few days.
“Everyone was so upset,” says Elsa, “and we tried to make the funeral happy. We wanted to celebrate his life. We got everyone to sing a song Francis had loved, ‘The Happy Song.’” The couple sing it for me, there and then.
Francis’s autopsy was confusing.
“The doctors said it showed Francis was healthy. There was no reason for his heart to stop beating. His heart was enlarged, but they put that down to his physical activity.”
It wasn’t until December 2006, when Greg and Elsa became the first patients to be screened in a new programme in Tallaght, that they realised what Francis had died of. Greg was identified with the Brugada’s syndrome gene, a syndrome discovered in 1992, where death happens because of the severe disturbances of the rhythm of the heart. There may be no symptoms.
Greg’s extended family are still being screened. But one of his other sons has the gene; along with uncles and cousins. Some of them have been fitted with an internal cardioverter defibrillator.
“One cousin had a son who died in Spain at 5,” says Greg. “We thought he had drowned, but now we know there was no water in his lungs. Clearly he had Brugada’s Syndrome too.”
Elsa thinks everyone should have an ECG routinely, to pick up such abnormalities.
“We go to the optician. We go to the dentist, and our heart is beating for us 80 times a minute,” she says.
Sandra is annoyed that she didn’t insist that Francis got screened.
“I knew about Cormac McAnally,” she says. “I was on to Francis about the amount of sport he was doing; but I never said ‘maybe you should get tested.’”
Sandra laughs as she remembers the man she has loved since she was 17.
“I talk about him all the time, to new friends as well as old ones. I have all these photos of our Australian trip, and of other holidays. Friends say ‘you can see he was special. He jumps off the page.’ He was always smiling.”
Elsa remembers how she had to bribe him to get him into college.
“I didn’t believe in bribing until Francis came along. He had to repeat his leaving certificate. I’m from Trinidad. I’ve taken the boys there twice, but Francis was too young to remember the first time. He always complained. So I said, ‘if you succeed to 3rd level I will take you.’
“He did college the hard way,” says Greg. “He went to IT to get a diploma, then to Galway for his degree. And he got a first.”
Greg is immensely proud of the son he lost. He tells me that Intel loved him. They have changed Francis’s office space into a ‘quiet corner’ for employees to take time to chill out.
“They call it the Francis corner,” he says.
“I can’t stop talking about Francis,” says Greg, as tears spring to his eyes. “He knew me so well. He knew all my faults. I talk to him all the time. I can hear him now, saying, ‘oh Da!’”
Their religion, the couple say, have helped them stay positive. As for Sandra, she has no regrets.
“If someone had said, when I was 17, all this will end in tears, I wouldn’t change a thing. I am positive and thankful that I had the time with him. Some people never find someone as special as Fran. If I never find anyone else it will have been worth it. Every second of it.”
ABOUT CARDIAC RISK IN YOUNG POEPLE.
· Over 5,000 people suffer sudden cardiac death in Ireland. 60 – 80 are under 35.
· Cardiac death in young people is mostly due to inherited heart disease or congenital defects.
· Screening is vital.
· The Centre for cardiovascular Risk in young people at The Adelaide and Meath Hospital, in Tallaght, was launched by Garret Fitzgerald on 10th November, 2008.
· The centre will screen at least 1,600 patients every year, but has already screened 500 people.
· The centre is supported by CRY- Cardiac Risk in the Young; a charity formed by parents of children who had died suddenly, who were troubled by the lack of medical and emotional support. Funding is provided by the Patches Trust and Individual benefactors.
· The centre provides a free service to young people at risk and families of someone who has suffered a sudden cardiac death.
· To be referred, ask a Consultant, GP, or the Charity, CRY.
For More Information; www.cry.ie
© Sue Leonard. 2009.