THE IMPORTANCE OF HEART SCREENING – The story of Matthew McDonnell, one of TTTs brightest stars

Coach Claire Sutcliffe

This is an account from my athlete Matthew McDonnell.  Matthew is 17 and I have been coaching him for a couple of years.  When Matthew came to me we had no idea of what lay ahead for him. He was a fit and healthy chap with no medical issue and a huge desire to be the best that he could be.  His passion for the sport was massive and he put so much effort and determination into his training whilst also managing to achieve high grades at school.  I have so much respect for this young man and am so proud of him in the way he has coped this year.  The phone call I received from him back in April I am not afraid to say reduced me to tears.  Here is his story:

Matthew McDonnell – My Triathlon Story 

In March this year I raced in the British Elite Duathlon Champs, this felt like a breakthrough and gave me hope going forward. I am only 17 and after a couple of years of TTT coaching with Claire I was heading towards where I wanted to be.

Then in April, a charity called Vital Signs Foundation were running a heart screening day at my school so I decided to go and get checked out. I had an ECG and then echocardiogram, which both came back abnormal. I was shocked, nothing felt or seemed wrong, I was putting in some of my biggest training weeks ever and seeing good results. However, the Doctor told me I must not compete and I was limited to Zone 2 training whilst I was followed up. Although a blow mid-season, I felt sure I would be back to normal soon enough. 

After a lot of hospital visits all over the country and a lot of tests, I have been diagnosed with left ventricular non-compaction cardiomyopathy, a rare heart condition. It is most likely I was born with it and it is still largely an unknown condition but it means that the muscle in my heart did not form properly and pre-disposes me to arrhythmia’s and cardiac arrest. I was told I will never be able to compete or train properly and in the next few months I will be fitted with an internal defibrillator to give an electric shock should anything happen. I had the operation at the beginning of October which all went smoothly until I developed an inflammatory response called Pericarditis so I’m recovering from that currently. At the moment, 30 minutes at 50 watts is a good day but this should improve by Christmas. Long term, the amount of exercise I can do should improve back up to a moderate intensity but I have been repeatedly made aware that it will never be anywhere near what it was. I recently attended a medical conference run by the charity CRY where I was presented as a case study. It was an interesting day and I learnt a lot but even these experts had no new insights to offer. I enjoyed reminding some of the Doctors there how important it was to give complete care, especially for athletes where conditions like this affect their lives in such major ways. Sometimes this seems forgotten in my experience, but caring for the person all round should be considered as important as caring for their heart (or condition).

The specific condition I have makes it difficult to accept the situation as there isn’t much known about what is going on. The Doctors have to make estimates and assumptions that are very cautious. I now realise how much my life relied on exercise, it was almost like an addiction and having it taken away is difficult. If I could go back, I would definitely develop a variety of things that filled my spare time and that I used to relax.

Obviously this has been a massive lifestyle shock. Triathlon consumed a large part of my life and formed part of my future plans but it was also something I loved. The adaptation has been difficult. However, deep down I know this is a good thing. The alternative could have been tragic, we regularly hear of sudden death in athletes, whether it’s footballers, cyclists etc. I would never have known that I had a problem with my heart until it had killed me.

I plan to keep moving forward, it just has to be different now. I am going to uni to study psychology and I have just entered the Ring O’ Fire (a 135 mile ultra marathon around Anglesey). Whether I will be able to do it is in the balance at the moment but being able to hike round just inside the cut-off is what I am aiming for. The care and support I have had has been amazing and has made the last 6 months much easier to get to a point where I can start to look forward a little bit.

I would encourage everybody to get screened and be sure, more than 99% of the time it will be routine and almost feel pointless, but it is important. There are almost always no warning signs. Charities like CRY and VSF do a really good job of providing free screenings around the UK.

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