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Video: A life with spiders and a heart condition

A heart condition hasn’t stopped Carl Portman living life on the edge. Sarah Brealey reports on how his ICD has helped him travel the globe to see spiders in their natural habitat.

Carl Portman isn’t your typical tourist. He’s travelled thousands of miles, but not to visit beach resorts or capital cities.

Instead, Carl, 51, has crossed the southern hemisphere and trekked through remote jungles to pursue his passion for creatures that many of us find terrifying.

Carl loves spiders, and observing them in their natural habitat is his favourite hobby. “When I get into the rainforest and I hear the cicadas in the trees, it is my idea of heaven,” he says. “I feel totally at home there.”

I have done all this, followed my hopes and dreams, because of my ICD

Carl carries out his quest in spite of his heart condition, which is controlled by an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). “I want to show that anything is possible,” he says. “My motto is ‘Get up, get dressed and get out there’, and I know this attitude helps me cope with my heart disease and the ICD.”

Carl was diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC), a rare disease of the heart muscle, when he was 29. It can affect the pumping ability of the heart and can cause abnormal heart rhythms. Carl has had two ablation procedures to try to correct the heart-rhythm issue, and also takes medication.

Carl PortmanWhen he was offered an ICD, which can restore a normal heart rhythm if he suffers a life-threatening ventricular tachycardia, he was initially reluctant. “I didn’t want any foreign objects inside me,” he says.

“Even the fear of sudden death couldn’t change my mind. But Tim Betts, my brilliant cardiologist, convinced me. He treated me as a person, not just as a patient – that was really important. It was his words, ‘You enjoy life so much, why not extend it?’, that I thought were really logical.”

Life saver

Carl says he sometimes finds his ICD uncomfortable, such as when he lies on his left side in bed, and he found it difficult psychologically at first. “It is strange to have a piece of machinery inside you. You almost don’t feel like a person. But you might argue it’s a small price to pay for my life.”

Having the ICD has almost certainly saved his life twice already. When it delivered its first shock, in March 2010, Carl was on a fishing boat in the Arctic trying to spot the aurora borealis, or northern lights. There was no medical help on board, but the ICD restored Carl’s normal heart rhythm.

Carl PortmanHe was able to fly home the next day and went for a check-up at the cardiology clinic. He knows the device is helping to protect him and allowing him to do the things he loves.

Carl, from Banbury, Oxfordshire, worked in logistics for the Ministry of Defence for 30 years and now writes for a chess magazine. Studying spiders and other wildlife is his hobby.

Since his ICD was fitted, he’s been on natural history trips to Australia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize. He also married his partner Susan, an IT consultant. He says: “I have done all this, followed my hopes and dreams, because of my ICD.”

Being in remote places can be frightening. Carl worries about having a life-threatening heart rhythm, his ICD delivering a shock when it’s not supposed to, or getting bitten by a venomous spider (fortunately, he hasn’t been bitten yet).

“It is always on your mind,” he says. “You think, ‘There is no medical help here.’ Some of the places I go to have no facilities at all. It is good that the ICD is there to protect me.”

Travelling through airports has only posed minor challenges. “I have had a few issues at airports, but generally it is OK. I just tell them I need a pat down instead of walking through the scanner.”

Read our list of dos and don'ts if you have an ICD.

Thrilling tarantulas

Carl believes in the importance of staying positive. Pursuing his interests and having a can-do attitude helps him do that. “The thrill of seeing a big tarantula in its natural habitat is one of the highlights of my life,” he says. “I want to go out and see these things. Why should this stop me?”

Carl Portman's tarantulaHe has been interested in spiders for about 20 years, ever since he got a pet tarantula to try and cure his fierce hatred of spiders. “I got the biggest tarantula I could find, and the next thing I knew, I was travelling to Ecuador to see them.”

At one point, Carl was breeding endangered spiders and had more than 1,500 of them in his house. His wife is less keen, so he’s now down to 17 – plus a scorpion and a Madagascan hissing cockroach. But his passion for spiders hasn’t diminished.

“Spiders are interesting,” he says. “They are different. They go back 400 million years. They have to moult their whole skin to grow. They are creative; they set traps to catch prey. They can produce silk. Some can go without food for 12 to 13 months, and some have incredible camouflage. Without spiders, we would probably be overrun with insects.”

Carl hasn’t let his ICD stop him from living a full life, and he wants to encourage others to do the same. “I am not afraid to die, but I am afraid of not living. I want to show that anything is possible.”

Support from the BHF

Our Heart Matters Helpline offers information and support if you have a heart condition. We also have a Genetics Information Service if you or a family member have been diagnosed with an inherited heart condition. Call 0300 330 3300. To share experiences with other people with heart conditions, join our online community.

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