Killer heart condition claimed my son without warning

Two years ago Philip Matthew lost his 31-year-old son suddenly to coronary artery disease. He tells health reporter Jane Picken how he is using the tragedy to warn others who could be at risk of the killer illness.

As a young husband and popular GP, Mathew Thoppil had everything to live for.

But in May 2005 Mathew, a keen sportsman and cricket fan, collapsed suddenly and died while playing squash at Eldon Leisure in Newcastle.

A post-mortem revealed Mathew had advanced Ischaemic heart disease, and although it was a condition running in the family, the GP never experienced any of the warning signs.

Nothing could be done for Mathew when he collapsed, but his family now know there is something which can be done for others who could be at risk of sudden heart-related deaths, and last year they set up a charity to raise funds for research and generated awareness about asymptomatic (without symptoms) heart disease in the young.

They aim to work closely with the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) and ultimately Mathew’s family want to see a screening programme brought in to identify potentially-vulnerable youngsters.

“Mathew was at the prime of his youth and career, and had everything to look forward to,” said Mathew’s dad Philip. Mathew, a consultant anaesthetist at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary.

“When Mathew died, we felt like our world had fallen apart. We knew we had two options – we could either cry and become depressed about what had happened or we could try to prevent another family going through what we had.

“We strongly feel that while it is to late for Mathew, everything possible should be done to detect and warn those vulnerable youngsters for whom it is not too late yet.

“We believe that we owe it to Mathew, society at large, and above all, we owe it to the young lives that may be saved.”

Ischaemic heart disease, which can lead to sudden death, is not uncommon, and statistics show eight people die every week in the UK in similar circumstances to those Mathew experienced.

“Sometimes the symptoms are so trivial, that they are ignored until disaster strikes,” said father-of-three Philip who lives in Ponteland with wife Sandy.

“If detected in good time, most of these deaths could be prevented. The potential victims could be offered treatment and advice on preventative measures and lifestyle changes.

“People who we know are vulnerable should not be challenging their heart to the extr5emem like Mathew was. Things like doing sport can be dangerous, and people have died on the football pitch or doing things like the Great North Run.”

Mathew, who lived with wife Julie, 30, in Gosforth, had been due to become a partner at the Denton Turret Medical Centre, in Slatyford, Newcastle, at the time of his death.

Medical reports after his death revealed it was not a heart attack which had lead to his death but an irregularity in the electrical currents in the heart which caused the organ’s rhythm to go haywire, meaning it could not pump blood effectively.

Now, the Mathew Thoppil Trust plans to offer treatment and advice on lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of another young person’s death, and organises also hope to set up support groups to help relatives and friends of unfortunate victims of the unexpected illness.

Sudden Cardiac Death is an umbrella term used for the many different causes of cardiac arrest in young people and defines a collapse which is non-traumatic, non-violent, unexpected and resulting from heart failure within hours of experiencing normal health.

A thickening or abnormal structure of the heart muscles and irregularities of electrical impulses which can upset the natural rhythm of the heart are just two of several factors which can lead to Sudden Cardiac Death.

The worrying thing is there are no warnings, although in some cases people can experience dizziness or fainting spells, and a sudden loss of consciousness or death often occurs during physical exercise or emotional upset.

“It’s a very worrying thing, but it is no single condition or type of process which kills a young person,” added Philip, 60.

“And because there are several causes, and not a lot which can be done to prevent them, different treatments work on different conditions. For example, a defibrillator can be used to help save someone suffering from one particular cause, but it will not work with others.”

A simple way to diagnose heart abnormalities which could lead to Sudden Cardiac Death is by having an ECG (electrocardiogram) test.

If there has been a young (under 35) sudden death in a family, relatives can be screened on the NHS.

Sports can trigger sudden death

The incidence of sudden cardiac death in those aged 35 years or less is approximately 1 in 10,000 every year.

Sudden cardiac death in those aged 35 years or less is more common in males than females.

Sports activity in adolescents and young adults is associated with an increased risk of sudden cardiac death./ Sports activity does not appear to be the cause, but instead the trigger in those athletes who were affected by cardiovascular conditions predisposing to life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias during physical exercise.

There is an increased risk of sudden cardiac death associated with cocaine abuse.

Causes of sudden adult death include:

Coronary artery disease;

Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC);

Hypertrophic Cardiiomyoptahy (HOCM);

Coronary artery abnormalities, including an anomalous coronary artery;

Myocarditis ;

Dilated Cardiomyopathy;

Dystrophica Myotonica;

Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome;

Mitral Valve Prolapse;

Aortic Stenosis;

Cardiac ion channelopathies such as Long QT Syndrome, Brugada Syndrome.