When Fr Aidan Mullan knelt to say his morning prayers at 7am on January 27, little did he realise that within two hours his life would change.
He hadn’t felt well the previous evening, but didn’t think much of it, thinking it was the flu. He broke out in a sweat and had some water, hoping the feeling would pass.
With the first snow fall of the year he thought he better get up to St. Patrick’s Church in Dungiven to turn the heating on.
At 9.15 am, as he made his way there, he was stopped in his tracks by a pain that felt as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to his chest.
When the church secretary, Louise saw him in the office she told him he was a bad colour and he needed to see a doctor.
Within 10 minutes, Fr Mullan was with his local doctor at the Health Centre in Dungiven.
“That was at 25 past nine and I was very agitated with the pain,” recalled Fr. Mullan. “Dr. Johnston did an ECG and told me I’d had a heart attack. The pain was so strong.”
At 10am, Fr Mullan was in a cardiac ambulance on his way to Altnagelvin.
“I had been given morphine, but it wasn’t strong enough so I was given a second shot. I was quite dopey at that stage because the morphine had kicked in. I thought I would be going to Ward 44, the Cardiac Ward, but they wheeled me straight to the Cath Lab and, when they opened the doors, there were about 12 people, dressed in masks and gowns waiting for me.
“I remember the cardiac consultant reaching in to me and telling me who he was, and saying he was going to do a procedure. I can remember hearing voices saying ‘look at that’. The next thing I knew the consultant, Dr. Paul McGlinchey said ‘Fr., we’ve been into your heart and you have a stent in and you’ll be as right as rain’. I said ‘thank you’, and I felt very relaxed. I was taken into Coronary Care and I remember the time on the clock read 11.05am.”
Speaking publicly about his experience, Fr Mullan wants to highlight the life-saving work at the new state-of-the-art Cath Lab at Altnagelvin.
He said without it, he would probably have been treated in Belfast and had to stay in hospital for several weeks.
Patients suffering from a heart attack are taken immediately to a catheterisation laboratory (Cath Lab) to have a blockage in the blood vessels around their heart removed using a balloon or stent.
“It was a five-star treatment, and I got out home the next day,” he said, showing the tiny scar where a fine tube called a catheter was inserted in his wrist artery.
After the procedure, Fr Mullan said he was as weak as a kitten.
Walking up a flight of stairs was limited to once a day, and he had to get used to taking a raft of pills.
“I had no expectation of what happened as there was no history of it in the family. I didn’t have diabetes and I didn’t have high blood pressure.
“It was stress, something we all have,” he said, explaining he has made adjustments to his lifestyle.
A four-mile walk up to Banagher Dam and back, or around the the Roe Valley Country Park is part of his everyday routine.
“I’m more tired in the evenings now, but I’m comfortable,” he said.
Part of those adjustments is taking on a lighter workload; a lighter assignment as it’s referred to in church terms.
On Sunday, Fr. Mullan will say his last Mass in the parish of Dungiven, where he has been Parish Priest for the past six years.
He will move to The Parish of the Three Patrons in Derry where he will be a curate, a decision Fr. Mullan has considered since he had the heart attack six months ago.
The Omagh man is no stranger to the city, however, having spent 12 years in the Waterside, 20 years teaching at St. Columb’s College and two years as hospital chaplain in Altnagelvin.
The 65-year-old cleric is looking forward to a new parish, but admits he will miss the many great people he met in Dungiven where he said he has made lifelong friends and even picked up a bit of the accent.
He won’t be a stranger to the parish, and he promises he will be back to visit. He will find new paths to walk, and already he has routes mapped out in his head, which include along the River Foyle and over the Peace Bridge.
Fr. Mullan said while the health service has its challenges, he felt it was important to speak about a positive experience.
“They saved my life,” he said, “and the vocation element cannot be measured or paid for. It’s not just a job. It is a vocation.”
Fr. Mullan added: “I’m blessed to be here today and I relish each day as a gift.”