‘It’s inevitable that the heart I have won’t last me all my life,’ says doctor with heart disease

Míde Duff can’t pinpoint a time when her parents sat her down and told her she has congenital heart disease.

The 30-year-old Dungarvan woman feels like she’s always known. “I’ve never not known I had major heart surgery at 10 months and that I have a very different heart to other people.”

Her open heart surgery – the Senning/Mustard operation – was carried out in February 1991 by the late Mr Maurice Neligan in Crumlin Children’s Hospital. “The surgery involved re-routing the blood flow in my heart, so my right ventricle pumps blood around the body, while my left ventricle pumps to the lungs – the opposite of normal hearts,” says Míde.

As an infant, Míde responded “incredibly well” to the surgery with no complications or infections – she was home after 10 days. And she has remained well. She is on a single medication and is monitored yearly at the adult congenital heart clinic in the Mater Hospital. “I’ve absolutely super health and I still remain asymptomatic.” Which is why it didn’t immediately hit Míde, when Covid-19 struck last year, that she’d need to step back from her work.

A junior doctor working in care of the elderly at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, one of the biggest acute hospitals in Europe, she received the same email all her colleagues got. “It said anyone with an underlying condition should get in touch with their clinical supervisor. So I did. We had various conversations.”

In the to-and-from of those discussions, Míde recalls becoming very cautious about going into work. “I felt ‘I don’t want to get this thing’. It was a very scary time. Initially, we agreed I’d avoid the Covid-positive patients on the ward. But as a junior doctor, you cover all the on-call shifts. It became virtually impossible – I was the only doctor, yet if a patient got a cardiac arrest I couldn’t get involved because of Covid-19.”

Her clinical supervisor recommended stopping work for two weeks, after which they’d reassess. “I felt enormous relief once I stopped.”

By mid-April, with case numbers rising exponentially, it became obvious Míde wouldn’t be returning any time soon. “If I got Covid-19 I’d be at increased risk of severe disease due to my congenital heart condition. If I became ill with the virus my outcome could be poorer than many. After much discussion with my cardiologist, I decided it’d be safer to pause my clinical work for the moment.”

She came back to Dungarvan in July to live with her parents, Barbara and Jim. “I’ve lovely housemates [in Glasgow] but I’m not in a relationship at the moment, so I thought it’d be nice to be back with family,” says Míde, who’s now vaccinated and returning to her junior doctor role in Scotland later this month.

‘I was perfectly fit and fast’

It’s not the first time she’s had to change her plans because of her heart condition. She has always adored sport and as a child was involved in any available sport, with athletics her first love. “In my early teens, sport was getting more serious and I was getting better at it. I was perfectly fit and fast. I was getting more involved, but at the back of my parents’ minds, they knew I needed to take a step back – if I pushed my body more than it wanted to go, my heart could react.

“I was devastated. I thought my world had ended. I struggled with it. In your early teens, you don’t see the bigger picture. You don’t want to be the stand-out child. Against my will, I stopped.”

Dr Mide Duff on the Greenway, Co. Waterford. Picture: Patrick Browne

With athletics gone, aged around 15 and unknown to her parents, she started playing hockey and football. “I had to stop very shortly after. I got involved in the local tennis club and I still play tennis – it’s not as demanding on the heart.” She’s also a keen swimmer, which she does to keep fit, and is a member of her local hill-walking club. “I’m still able to run. I do it now for the joy of running. I love taking part in the winter and summer leagues the Athletics Club puts on. My power output wouldn’t be the same as someone else who’d have done the same training as me. My times would be lower – they’d finish up the race, I’d finish in the middle. Sometimes the competitive animal in me gets very frustrated by that – but then I check myself and realise I’m so lucky.”

Looking ahead

As a doctor, she has seen many poorer outcomes from a variety of congenital heart conditions. And many people with her condition need a heart transplant by the time they’re 30. “I’m acutely aware that I’ll most likely need one later in life. It’s pretty inevitable that the heart I have won’t last me all my life. I think about it quite often. I struggle with it at times and it scares me, but it doesn’t dominate my life. I’m lucky there’s a transplant option for me.”

Earlier this year, Míde set herself the goal of running 30 miles to fundraise for Heart Children Ireland, a charity understandably very close to her heart. “Heart Children Ireland was founded when I was born. It’s their 30th year and I’m in my 30th year, so I ran 30 miles in 30 days, mostly on the Waterford Greenway or on Clonea Strand. I’ve benefited so much from advances in cardiology myself that I’m delighted to be able to support this great organisation.”

Offering support at all levels 

Heart Children Ireland supports parents/families of children, adolescents and adults with Congenital Heart Disease (CHD).

The most common of all birth defects, CHD affects one in every 100 children born. Heart Children Ireland has more than 1,000 member families.

There are many CHD types, which sometimes occur in combination. Children with CHD often need treatment/follow up care throughout their lives and require specialist care during childhood and adulthood.

In its first 25 years, Heart Children Ireland raised over €2.5 million for the Children’s Heart Centre at CHI at Crumlin.

Included among supports offered by Heart Children Ireland are:

  • Family Psychology Support Service free to all members. Individuals of all ages with congenital heart conditions, family members and bereaved families access this service.
  • The charity has purchased equipment for the Children’s Heart Centre (including the first ECMO machine for the ICU at CHI, Crumlin – it’s saving lives daily) and the Adult Congenital Unit at The Mater.
  • Funding of the Coagu-Chek programme to assist adolescents/adults at the Adult Congenital Unit. These machines enable patients take control of their own health, resulting in less time in hospital.

Heart Children Ireland depends on their own fundraising and on donations from individuals/businesses. The charity’s appealing for donations to help it continue supporting all members. Donate at www.heartchildren.ie; email margaret@heartchildren.ie;  085-7237797

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