Co Down road cyclist and runner on 'enormous shock' of unexpected heart attack in his 40s

Richard Ross was a fit racing biker and runner when he had an unexpected heart attack in his 40s.
-Credit: (Image: NICHS)

Richard Ross is passionate about encouraging men to share their health stories, after he had an unexpected heart attack in his 40s.

Richard, 48, from Moneyreagh was out cycling when he began experiencing pain in his chest. He put it down to indigestion and would never have suspected he was about to suffer a sudden heart attack. This Men’s Health Week, he is sharing his story to raise awareness that a heart attack can happen to anyone at any age.

Richard recalled: “It was the 2nd of August 2022, and I was out on my bike training for an event. I went out to do a 40-mile loop and it was a beautiful summer's evening. I was going along quite a flat road and I felt brilliant, but then I suddenly felt a very sharp, jabbing pain in my chest.

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“I thought at first it was indigestion as I had eaten around an hour before I started cycling, but the pain just kept getting worse. I have undertaken first aid courses for years and know the symptoms of most conditions, but never thought that this would be heart trouble. I kept going to try and get through it, but a number of hours later the pain was still worsening so I went to A&E.

“There, they took blood tests and the next thing I knew the doctor was sitting with me at three o’clock in the morning saying, ‘You have had a heart attack’. The doctor didn’t seem to understand it and neither did I.”

Richard was the last person most people would expect to suffer a heart attack: “It was an enormous shock to me and everyone who knew me. I think it was even a shock to the doctors in the hospital. I was only 46, very lean, and very fit. I’ve never smoked, I wasn’t carrying any weight at all and was only about three quarters of stone heavier than when I left school!

“I spent three or four days in hospital waiting to get an angiogram to find out whether or not I needed stents or major surgery. It was a horrible few days. There were no visitors allowed at that stage because of Covid, so I was on my own just thinking about what was to come and how I was going to recover from this.

“The most likely cause of my heart attack was high cholesterol which was genetic for me. There are heart related issues on both sides of the family, so even though I was riding a bike thousands of miles a year, climbing mountains, running, and sailing boats, my cholesterol was going to build up and there is nothing I could have done to prevent it.

“I was tested for Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH), which is a genetic condition that significantly increases your bad cholesterol, but I didn't have it. That was an enormous relief to me as it meant that I couldn’t pass it on to my daughter who was only eight at the time. If I did have FH, then she would’ve had to go on to medication as early as 10 years old! Now, she will simply have to get tested at 18 and monitored.”

Richard says that even with the heart related issues in his family, no-one has ever had a heart attack or any other cardiac event below the age of 65: “Doctors believe that the cause of mine was polygenetic, a bad mix of genes. The doctors and surgeons all said the same thing – ‘No matter what you do, you can’t outrun your genes’.”

He added: “I have friends who are of a similar age who have been on proactive statins for years because there is a family history of early cardiac death. I was aware that we had heart issues in the family, but nobody had ever had a heart attack, so I never met the threshold for early intervention.”

After leaving hospital, Richard began his journey to recovery. “I started walking every day as soon as I got home from hospital. I was able to walk half a mile at most at first, combined with a lot of sleep and rest. Then after about six weeks, I was able to get back on the bike.

“It wasn't so much the physical side of it but the mental impact that was a challenge because I was cycling along the same roads where the heart attack happened. Within about 8 weeks however I was cycling over 15 miles and every week I built up my distance, bit by bit.

“By about November, I cycled the route I was meant to do that ill-fated night. It is a lovely route through the countryside and then along the coastline. I never wanted the condition to beat me, so I always wanted to get myself back and cycle that route again.

“My recovery wasn’t plain sailing. The first three or four months went well, but once I tried to get back to work it got a lot harder, and I hit a wall. I went back to work at about 10 weeks, which was too soon. I worked reduced hours until Christmas, but then from January until about May, I went back to working full time as well as doing some other things outside of work, such as sitting on a school Board of Governors, and my charity work.

“With a young child at home, it just wasn’t working. I had to step away from the Board of Governors for five months and ease back on a few things to give myself a chance to recover. The drain on mental energy was the aspect I really didn’t anticipate.”

Richard is sharing his experience to inspire others affected by health conditions to keep going on their own recovery journey: “I took part in the six-week statutory Ulster Cardiac Rehab Clinic after my heart attack and took a tremendous amount from it. At the end of the course, I spoke with the staff about introducing a Patient Experience talk to their programme.

“The idea was that, as there was a week without talks on the programme, the final week could be reserved for former patients, like me, to talk to the current patients about our journey with the condition and our recovery. It was never intended that it would just be me, but it is difficult to talk about and you have to be ready to do that. To date I have done all the talks and have now delivered about 30 sessions to well over 400 patients. Hopefully in time others may feel ready to do the same.

“My heart attack story is quite different – a really fit racing biker and runner in their 40s having a heart attack out of nowhere isn’t the typical story. A lot of people who have had heart attacks are older than me and in their 50s or 60s, but it doesn’t matter what age I am, what my background is. The shock for me is no different to the shock for you, and the recovery journey that I go on is also the same as the one you will go on in many ways.

“Everybody comes into their recovery journey with the same goal - they want to get back to doing what they were doing before, or as close to it as they can. So, if I was riding a bike and climbing mountains, somebody else might have been gardening or playing with their grandkids, but everybody wants to know how they can get back to what they used to do. That is one thing which is common to everybody.

“One lesson I’ve learned that I always pass on to other patients is what I call, milestones and millstones. It’s good to have goals to focus towards, but make sure that whatever you aim for is achievable. I realised this through personal experience as last year I did Couch to 5K to get back running. I was doing well and took part in Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke’s Red Dress Fun Run and did reasonably well.

“The marathon was coming up on my birthday, so I aimed to do a 5-mile relay leg. I thought it was a brilliant goal and a big jump forward on my birthday. But then, while doing another 5K run, I had bad heart palpitations and pains. I had to stop and couldn’t finish the run. After that I had to forget about doing the relay leg and it really set me back.

“I had set the relay as a milestone, but actually created a millstone for myself. I inadvertently set myself up for a fall. What I did then was I got back on the bike because it’s lower impact than running, and it really worked. The advice I give to others is your body isn’t necessarily saying ‘no’, it’s maybe saying ‘not yet’. It's about listening to your body and finding ways around your setbacks.”

After his heart attack, Richard got involved with Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke to raise awareness of heart illness.
After his heart attack, Richard got involved with Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke to raise awareness of heart illness. -Credit:NICHS

Whilst taking part in the statutory Ulster Cardiac Rehab Clinic, Richard was introduced to Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke, who deliver a talk about the services and support they can provide as part of the programme.

“I wanted to get involved with a charity which is directly related to my condition to try and promote awareness of heart illness. The care services Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke offers are brilliant. In the first month when you have a heart attack, you are casting around for answers and help,” Richard explains.

“It was then that I heard about the charity and found out that their Run to Remember 10k walk event was taking place in Lurgan about six weeks after my heart attack, so it gave me something to focus on by preparing to take part in that. I then took part in their Red Dress Fun Run at Stormont where everyone wears red in support of heart disease.

“A lot has changed for me since August 2022, and I have improved a lot. When I took part in the Red Dress Fun Run for the second time this year, I was running around beside one of the Ulster Rugby players so that was a good sign!”

He added: “Other conditions such as cancer have so many different types of charities in this country working on that one illness, but for heart we have basically only one - NICHS. The issue is massive, and the care and advice for patients and family members that the charity offers is so important which is why I wanted to get involved.”

Fidelma Carter, Head of Public Health at Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke, added: “Men’s Health Week serves as a timely reminder of the importance of addressing and supporting men's health concerns. We would urge men across Northern Ireland to take stock of their health and NICHS will be running a number of initiatives to support this.

“Our Health Promotion team will be carrying out health checks across workplaces and will also be at a number of libraries delivering free blood pressure and atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) checks in partnership with the South Eastern Trust, Lisburn & Castlereagh Council and Libraries NI.

“The checks provide a great opportunity for men to do something positive for their health and help detect the early warning signs and hidden risk factors associated with avoidable chest, heart and stroke illnesses. We will also be delivering free pop-up blood pressure checks at selected stores of our corporate partner MACE throughout June as part of our current blood pressure awareness campaign.

“Undetected high blood pressure is often known as ‘The Silent Killer’ due to the fact it rarely causes any physical symptoms or warning signs and is often only discovered after someone suffers a stroke or heart attack. A blood pressure check is simple and only takes a few minutes, but it really could help save your life.”

More information about NICHS’s free upcoming pop-up health checks is available here.

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