Sports fans take Kate’s message to heart

Thu, 27th Apr 2017
PREVIEW

Despite being told she would never play contact sport, Kate McCarthy hasn’t let heart disease stop her excelling at every sport she’s tried her hand at and now she’s on a mission to spread the message that exercise and eating well is the best way to keep your heart healthy.  WORDS: Roxanne McCarty-O’Kane.

Kate McCarthy
Kate McCarthy

Kate McCarthy was in her element as she took to the field in a Brisbane Lions guernsey in February for round one of the first ever AFLW (AFL Women’s) season.

The athletic 24-year-old stunned avid AFL supporters and quickly became a superstar in the minds of the newcomers to the sport after she pulled off arguably one of the best goals of the season – a five-bounce sensation from the centre of the ground against Collingwood.

Her on-field feats in a season where the Lions only lost one game, earned McCarthy the Member’s MVP Award at the Lions Women’s Best and Fairest gala.

While this is impressive for any athlete, it is even more so when you find out McCarthy has a pacemaker and was told when she was young that she could never play contact sport.

Although McCarthy’s irregular heartbeat was diagnosed when she was a child, the Brisbane high school teacher has become an ambassador for the National Heart Foundation to show young people across Australia how healthy living can improve your heart health and prevent the onset of heart diseases. 

Her message is more relevant than ever, with National Heart Week shedding a light on how prevalent heart disease is in our country.

According to the Heart Foundation, cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in Australia, killing one person every 12 minutes.

McCarthy had her first seizure when she was just two years old and medical examinations found an intermittent grade three blockage, which caused a full blockage, preventing her heart from operating.

“They monitored it quite closely because I was so young, but every two or three years I would have another seizure episode and it got to the point when I was in grade seven that I had a seizure at school and then another one when they called the ambulance. I ended up having seven or eight seizures in that one day,” she tells My Weekly Preview.

“I remember that day vividly. I remember not feeling too great that whole day and finding out they were going to do an operation but I didn’t understand the gravity of it. I just knew that it was going to fix me, so it seemed like it was what needed to happen I suppose.”

McCarthy was just 12 years old when she had an incision near her collar bone to have a pacemaker fitted to regulate her heartbeat and after a three-day hospital recovery, she was “good to go.”

Already an active youngster, McCarthy was a touch football fanatic and was set to play at a competition one month after her operation. With the green light from her cardiologist, she went on to compete, but was told she would never be able to play contact sport as the potential for damage to her pacemaker was too great.

That did not slow her down in non-contact sports, having represented Australia as a junior in track and field, when she recorded a personal best 12.06 seconds for 100 metres and going on to represent Queensland in cricket.

McCarthy then rose through the ranks and represented Australia in touch football for several seasons before she began to look for the next sporting challenge to conquer. AFL had a strong pull.

“I had to see my cardiologist to give me clearance to play and they let me go ahead,” she says.

This decision changed her life. McCarthy went on to play two seasons with the QWAFL for Coolangatta and Yeronga before being successfully drafted to the Brisbane Lion’s first AFLW squad.

“When I came over [to AFL] there was never any mention of a women’s league, but I joined the Queensland Academy after being invited following my first season and then I got talking to my coach and he seemed pretty confident there was a possibility of it happening,” she says.

“There were 160 drafts and it came to around number 82 when my name was called out and it was really surreal getting stuck into pre-season training. To be among the first women to pull on a Brisbane Lions guernsey to represent the club in that way is something that will never happen again and it was amazing to be part of such an historical season.”

“Cardiovascular disease is highly prevalent in women, particularly as women get older…”

McCarthy’s athleticism is up there with the best and if the midfielder-turned-forward hadn’t tweeted about her pacemaker following the season’s opening round using the hashtag ‘metalheart’, the country would never have known she had one.

“It doesn’t stop me at all, wouldn’t even know that I have it really and I am lucky for that,” she says.

“I was throwing it out there and had an overwhelming response, with people replying to the post and I also had people reach out who had pacemakers themselves, who had been told that they can never play sport again.

“While I am all for pushing the limits, I do recommend people consult with their cardiologist before launching into sports. If it gives you as much enjoyment as it does for me, then you should reach out for help to see if you can get back into it.”

A big advocate for living a healthy lifestyle, McCarthy has used her newfound role model status to encourage young women to follow their dreams and also to enjoy physical exercise and make healthy eating choices.

“You never know, something could happen and alter your ability to enjoy the things that you love, so make the most of every day and make the right choices for your health,” she says.

It is a message we have heard time and again and is linked to the prevention of some of the most prevalent health problems, but University of the Sunshine Coast associate professor Chris Askew agrees it is the most effective and easiest way people can stave off heart problems.

Askew, who is a senior research fellow within the School of Health and Sport Sciences and leads the USC VasoActive research group, will be using his presentation at the annual Sunshine Coast Heart Week Expo to share the message that “exercise is medicine”.

“Most of us have at least one risk factor and they include age, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, alcohol consumption and being overweight or obese. The better we are able to manage those risk factors, the better off we will be,” he says.

“There’s very strong evidence that if you’ve got one risk factor you have a certain level of risk and that risk multiplies with the more risk factors you have. The important thing is, if you have a higher cardiorespiratory fitness or you are more physically active, those activity levels  will offer some protection against cardiovascular diseases,” he says.

Some of the myths Askew wishes to dispel include that heart disease is a men’s disease and that blood pressure increases are a normal part of ageing.

“Cardiovascular disease is highly prevalent in women, particularly as women get older, and more women die of cardiovascular diseases than they do of many cancers,” he says.

“Also, as we age, we don’t necessarily have to develop high blood pressure. By living a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting alcohol intake and reducing salt intake, you also reduce your risk.”

With this year’s National Heart Week theme focusing on high blood pressure, Askew recommends people have regular check-ups with their GP as this is something as many as two in five Australian adults do not realise they have.

The USC Mobile Health Clinic will be at the Expo in Village Park, Bokarina, for people to have free blood pressure checks and undergo a vascular stiffness test, to see how flexible their arteries are. Askew says there will also be information on the many research projects the university is undertaking into cardiovascular health and how people can become involved.

“A key theme of the VasoActive research group’s work is that exercise is one of the most potent medicines that we have for preventing and treating cardiovascular disease, and we think it’s so effective because it gets right to the cause of the problem by targeting the stiffness of the arteries, which is one of the early stages of cardiovascular disease and leads to hypertension and blocked arteries. Exercise restores and develops artery function in people who already have cardiovascular disease and no other medication or drug that we know of has the same effects,” he says.

“Adopting healthy lifestyle change will have just as strong an impact if you start exercising when you are 60 as it would if you start when you are 16 years of age. It’s never too late to start.”

For heart health information call the Heart Foundation’s free helpline on 1300 36 27 87 or visit heartfoundation.org.au. Visit exerciseismedicine.org.au for inspiration on how to become more physically active to reduce your cardiovascular disease risk.


HEART WEEK EXPO
If you want to find out how to keep your heart healthy, head to the annual Sunshine Coast Heart Week Expo.  This year’s theme, which runs in conjunction with National Heart Week, is the importance of diagnosing and treating high blood pressure.

Sunshine Coast Council community portfolio councillor Jenny McKay says the council has partnered with the health and wellbeing sector to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle during Heart Week. “The Heart Week Expo offers a rare opportunity for people to hear first-hand from some of the region’s most respected specialists,” she says.

There will be more than 20 exhibitors in Village Park, including free vascular health checks by the University of the Sunshine Coast and people can join in Heart Foundation walking, bike rides, tai chi, yoga, and massages. Kim McCosker from 4 Ingredients will make a special appearance to demonstrate healthy cooking.  There will be free event parking off Shine Court for the duration of the event.

Visit sunshinecoast.qld.gov.au and search ‘health and wellbeing’ to download a Heart brochure and find out the range of activities and exhibitors at the expo.

The Sunshine Coast Heart Week Expo is on at Village Park, adjacent to Bragg Street and opposite the Sunshine Coast University Private Hospital, on April 29 from 9am to noon. 

The Sunshine Coast Heart Week Expo is proudly supported by My Weekly Preview

FAST FACTS
• Heart Week runs from April 30–May 6
• More than a third or close to six million adult Australians have hypertension (high blood pressure).
• More than 3.5 million of those are  in Queensland.
• More than two in five adult Australians, or 2.65 million people, have hypertension that  is unmanaged.
• The rate of hypertension is higher for Australian males than females.
• The best way to prevent hypertension is regular exercise  and a good diet.