Video: Taking to the air despite heart problems

Heart rhythm problems left Andrew McDonald feeling low. But a lifelong dream of flying a Spitfire helped him get off the ground, reports Sarah Brealey.

Andrew McDonald with spitfire behind

Andrew McDonald was a high-flying barrister, but his confidence nosedived when heart problems limited what he could do. With support from his doctors and the help of cardiac rehabilitation, he decided to follow new dreams, including beekeeping and taking to the skies in a vintage Spitfire.

Andrew was 60 and working long hours at the top of his field of asbestos litigation when he collapsed without warning. He saw his doctor and was referred to a cardiologist.

At the cardiologist’s office, Andrew collapsed again. He had been scheduled to give the keynote speech at a national legal conference the following day, but he was too unwell to travel.

Instead, he had tests that revealed atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm caused by abnormal electrical impulses in the heart’s upper chambers.

“I had always taken my health for granted,” says Andrew, from Merseyside. “But I discovered that it doesn’t take very much to knock your life out of equilibrium.”

It is something I thought I would never be able to do, but I have achieved it

He was prescribed medication and later had a cardioversion, where a controlled electric shock is used to restore the heart’s normal rhythm. The procedure was unsuccessful; Andrew was still having abnormal rhythms.

Two months afterwards, he had another cardioversion, then a pacemaker implanted to regulate his heartbeat. Some time later, he had an ablation procedure, where a cardiologist locates the heart tissue causing the abnormal signal and carefully destroys it.

“I was left feeling battered and bruised, unable to drive, unable to walk more than a short distance, snoozing most afternoons and with my legal practice hanging by a thread,” Andrew says. “I felt as if I had aged a decade in a year. All of this knocked my confidence.”

But a change in medications and a cardiac rehab programme helped Andrew get back on his feet. He started walking regularly, gradually extending the distance. He also bought an electric bike, which helped build his cycling ability and restore his independence while he couldn’t drive.

He took up a new hobby, beekeeping, as a replacement for some of the more active things he could no longer do.

Watch Andrew’s flight in a Spitfire:

Another setback on his way

Andrew was having his 2011 annual review at Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital with his cardiologist, Dr Derick Todd, when Dr Todd asked him: “What are you going to do with the rest of your life; what’s on your bucket list?” Andrew says: “Without thinking, I blurted out ‘I would love to fly a Spitfire’ and he responded by saying, ‘Well, don’t just talk about it. Do it!’”

At the time, says Andrew, “I didn’t think there was a cat in hell’s chance of me flying a Spitfire.” But he started looking into it.

The Spitfire appealed, he said, because it is “the ultimate boy’s toy… It is an iconic aircraft, it is the famous fighter of the Second World War. Every pilot would love to fly one.” He discovered there are only three two-seater Spitfires in the UK, and at the time you needed a pilot licence to even fly as a passenger.

Andrew had held a pilot licence in his youth, but he knew he’d have to undertake training and pass a Civil Aviation Authority medical examination to get it back. This was the motivation he needed to continue with his exercise regime; as he did, his health gradually improved.

He went back to work full-time and conducted his first trial since collapsing two years earlier. Then came a setback. Andrew developed problems with his eyesight. “I began having difficulty driving at night and my field of vision seemed to close in,” he says.

“Flying as a pilot seemed ever more remote.” Andrew describes that as his “lowest point... I felt I was in extreme old age, that the next thing would be a pipe and slippers and a white stick,” he says. But he didn’t give up on his dream.

After visiting an optician, he was told he had cataracts, a problem with the lens of the eye, which is common in older people. Two operations produced what he called “unbelievable results” – he was able to drive without glasses for the first time in years.

Fulfilling his dream of flying a Spitfire

Andrew McDonald in spitfire cockpit 

Focusing on his Spitfire goal helped Andrew overcome his diagnosis.

A few months later, Andrew passed the Civil Aviation Authority medical. He started flying training and a year later he regained his private pilot licence. The day after passing, he booked a two-day course at Goodwood Aerodrome, which would culminate in flying a Spitfire. 

The weather was glorious, and after practice-flying a Chipmunk and a Harvard, Andrew had a safety briefing from his instructor, Al Pinner, a former commander of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Then they both strapped themselves into the tiny cockpit.

“As we lined up on the runway, Al told me, ‘Here we go’, and we were off,” says Andrew. “The Spitfire climbed like a rocket. Shortly after takeoff, I was told: ‘You have control’. I was allowed to fly this aircraft, even allowed to roll it.

The smile didn’t wash off my face for a month afterwards

“The genius of the design of 70 years ago or more soon became apparent, the aircraft being beautifully balanced and easy to control. We then flew over to Southampton airport, where many Spitfires had been built, and carried out a victory roll at what seemed about 250 feet, which was fantastically exhilarating.

“I had a grin like a Cheshire cat. In fact, the smile didn’t wash off my face for about a month afterwards.”

Andrew had fulfilled his dream. “It is something I thought I would never be able to do,” he says. “But I have achieved it. I consider myself very lucky.”

And he didn’t stop there. Andrew decided to train to renew his pilot instructor’s licence, after a gap of 30 years. He reached his goal in September 2015.

Now 66, he is retired but says flying “has kept me out of mischief... My standing joke was that I didn’t want the highlight of my week to be a trip round Sainsbury’s,” he says. “I have also realised how important it is to exercise and eat healthily – not just to make changes when you have a heart diagnosis, but to stick to them.”

Andrew’s wife, Pam, has witnessed how following a dream has helped him. “Initially, things were extremely worrying,” she says. “I don’t think either of us thought he would recover to the extent that he has. Since he has taken up beekeeping and flying, he has really got back to his old self.

“It has been good for him; it has given him something to focus on when he was going through a difficult time.”

Andrew says that Pam’s support has been vital to him, as has the work of his medical team. Now he hopes to inspire others. “If it encourages one other person, that is my motivation,” he says. “Don’t give up. You can achieve far more than you think.”  

Andrew McDonald sitting on spitfire wing

Andrew’s tips for living with a heart condition

  • Live each day as if it were your last. And never give up hope.
  • Keep active. Even if you can’t do very much, keep at it. It will help your fitness and your recovery, and you may improve more than you thought you could.
  • Take up cardiac rehabilitation if it’s offered to you. If it isn’t offered and you think it should be, ask your doctor about it.
  • Make adjustments if you need to. If cycling is too much activity for you, what about an electric bike?
  • Have hobbies and interests – they give you something to focus on. If you can’t do the hobby you used to have, is there something new you can take up instead?
  • Try not to feel too sorry for yourself. The way I tried to look at it was that there were other people worse off than myself.
  • Don’t set your sights too low – otherwise you might not find out what you can achieve.

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