Ray Holmes is a Mater Hospital stalwart, having been a fixture in the Pathology lab for over 20 years. As someone who pushed himself physically and with a number of marathons behind him, he always thought of himself as pretty indestructible. That’s why when his GP said “Ray, you’ve got a hell of a heart murmur there”, he wasn’t unduly panicked.
However, some big challenges lay ahead. Now on the road to recovery, he’s taking part in the Mater Foundation’s 100 Miles in a Month in Feb 2023, so he can give something back.
Here’s his inspirational story.
“I grew up always wanting to push myself physically, I absolutely craved physical activity. Swimming was my first love and during my teens and early 20’s I was rarely out of the water. I remember as a student in Kevin St. Tech I used to swim for my whole lunch hour rather than eating. The interest in swimming pushed me on to being a scuba diver with The Vikings Sub Aqua Club, and a lifesaving instructor with Irish Water Safety.
One of my other passions was playing the violin, and this took over as I headed into my 40’s. I was first violinist in the Leinster Orchestra, not because of any great talent but mainly because I have no fear of standing in front of a crowd. All the practicing and lack of activity, however, saw my weight creep up and well as my blood pressure. I knew I needed to change something, so I decided to buy a pair of trainers and try a little run … and another passion was born.
I’m not an elegant runner, not a skinny guy, more a slow and steady trundler … but I seem to be able to keep going forever. I started with 5K’s, then got into Marathons – the Dublin Marathon is an annual highlight for me – I even did a 50k run in Portumna for my 60th birthday. After gradually improving my times over the years, suddenly I found I was slowing down. I thought – this might be my age – but things were definitely becoming more a struggle. I wasn’t unduly worried but then I had the check-up with my GP, the excellent Hugh Daly, and he flagged the heart murmur.
My first reaction was, well my mother is 93, she has one of those and she’s fine. However, Hugh said it needed to be checked with a cardiologist immediately. He suggested I go and see Pauline Diamond in Eccles Street. So, she looked at me and did a few tests and she told me I had a bicuspid aortic valve, which is a congenital heart condition. For two years I was in ‘watchful waiting’, they would do regular angiograms to check. One day I was checked over and they said I had severe stenosis (the narrowing or restriction of a blood vessel or valve that reduces blood flow) and when you get too severe, you have to take action.
Within two weeks I was being operated on by the wonderful, and incredibly talented, Lars Nolke. In my lab role, I’d been typing in his name on blood forms for the last twenty years. I’d been hearing work colleagues talk about him. It almost felt like I knew him and it reassured me somewhat. On Mr Nolke’s advice, I was fitted with an ‘Edwards’ resilient tissue valve, which he believed could last up to 20 years and allow me to have the active lifestyle I had before.
In the lead up to the op, my family were amazingly supportive. They never showed the fear they had. They’d always seen me as indestructible, but now were seeing me at my most vulnerable. As soon as Mr. Nolke finished the job, he rang my wife at home and said, “Patricia, Ray is finished. The operation was a success.” – the relief was palpable.
However, coming out the other side of the op was only half the battle. In a way, it almost felt after the op that I had a sort of post-traumatic stress. I was like a rabbit in the head lights – frightened and scared of life. I’d never really been sick, I was mentally adrift.
Then a wonderful thing happened. I knew I needed Cardiac Rehab, and a colleague Maria told me about the Mater’s own Cardiac Rehab at Heart House, across the road from the hospital. That’s when the two Annes came in to my life – Anne Murphy and Anne Gallagher – they were a lifeline, I couldn’t praise them enough!
They brought back my confidence, they helped rebuild my life. If I asked either of the ‘Annes’ a question, they would give an instant answer from their learned experience. They had seen it all before and there was no ambiguity. I’d blurt out ‘Oh, I am a bit worried I have AFIB (atrial fibrillation – an irregular heartbeat). They would say, “that is no problem, Ray, you’ll be okay, we’ll get rid of that. It’s quite common, 40% of people have that.” When I had to have my blood pressure checked, I’d go into panic and send it sky high, but they had a way of calming me and monitoring throughout and it would be fine.
With their help, I felt confident enough to go back to work within 4 months. Then, slowly I went back to the running. I did it on my own first because I wasn’t sure how I would be. Then one evening in the park, I met my old running crew – the Fit4Life group, coached by the amazing Barry Potts, under the auspices of Donore Harriers. They embraced me, they were so supportive – the running community has a special bond. They encouraged me to rejoin them, and I did. I ran my first official 5k at the start of December, and I’ve signed up for the next Dublin City Marathon. On top of that, I’m going to take on the Mater Foundation’s 100 Miles in a Month in Feb 2023 , so I can give something back.
The talents of Lars Nolke, and the wonderful support of Anne Murphy and Anne Gallagher in Heart House, have changed my life – I’ll be forever grateful.”
Ray, Co. Dublin