THE human heart is much like the engine of a car - if it's not "firing on all cylinders", it has to be checked out. 

That is the analogy used by Tempo man, Ernie Conlon, as he spoke of his own experiences with an hereditary heart condition. 

For Ernie, the 'engine' problems were clear; extreme tiredness, chest pain and trouble walking even short distances.

He booked himself in for a check-up with his GP, and after a few roadblocks, eventually received open heart surgery - or "opening the bonnet", as he called it. 

"I will always remember being in the Royal Victoria Hospital, where I was talked through the procedure by a nice consultant," Ernie recalled.

"He told me that the procedure was much like a mechanic working on a car. 

"A mechanic doesn't know what's wrong until they lift the bonnet - he would be doing the same with me, and if he saw anything wrong, he would fix it."

Motoring metaphors aside, open heart surgery has proved to be a literal life-saver for people like Mr. Conlon, even if the road from initial symptoms to life-saving surgery was long and winding. 

After first experiencing symptoms in 2015, Mr. Conlon went to see his GP before being sent to his local A&E for several tests.

He was sent home as his symptoms were thought to be angina, but they persisted - and got so bad that he was breathless climbing stairs.

Further tests revealed the true condition: bicuspid aortic valve (BAV), an inherited condition where the aortic valve contain only two flaps (or cusps) instead of three. 

"I was in a bad way, and I could barely walk 100 yards," Ernie recalled.

"Finding out that I had BAV explained a lot, and I am forever grateful to Dr. Cathcart for pushing the issue and making sure I got further tests."

His only option was surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, but surgeons were confident that it would put Mr. Conlon firmly back on the road. 

"I went in on a Sunday, had the operation on Monday, and I was out the following Monday," Mr. Conlon said. "Overall, the operation took six hours."

Mr. Conlon feels this speedy recovery was a result to his active lifestyle.

Well-known in footballing circles, he worked for many years with his local football club, Ballinamallard FC, and helped found the Fermanagh/Milkcup SuperCup organisation.

"They were surprised at me recovering so quickly, and I was out a week after the operation," he said. "If I wasn't as fit as I was, it would have taken longer."

And while there was a bump in the road in the form of a urine infection that resulted in another week in hospital, on the whole, Mr. Conlon's recovery has been smooth.

"I feel so much better after the surgery, and I'm nowhere near as tired as I was," he said.

"Of course, I still have to be careful in what I do, but I have a lot more energy.

"Beforehand, I could hardly walk a hundred yards, and now here I am out walking a dog every day."

He added: "If it wasn't for the surgery, I wouldn't be here."

Following his life-changing experiences, Mr. Conlon is supporting British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland’s (BHF NI) Heart Month to raise awareness of heart and circulatory conditions and associated symptoms.  

"As someone with an inherited heart condition who wasn’t aware until I started experiencing symptoms in my 60s, I feel very lucky to have a second chance of life through the life-saving surgery I received," he said. 
"It is thanks to organisations like BHF NI, which funds vital research into heart and circulatory diseases in Northern Ireland, that there continues to be improvements and advancements in this area."