Professor Mary Sheppard, second from right in the front row, at the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland
GIFTED and inspiring teachers and mentors have played an important role in Mary Sheppard's life.
Born in Cork but reared from a young age in Newcastle West, Professor Mary Sheppard is now an international expert on CRY or Cardiac Risk in the Young, speaking and lecturing throughout the world on the condition that has taken so many young lives, so suddenly.
Earlier this month, she was honoured by the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland with an Honorary Fellowship, their highest mark of esteem to an eminent peer.
But Mary might not have gone down the medical road at all but for the inspiration from her biology teacher, Mrs Murphy at what was then the convent secondary Scoil Mhuire. school.
“She was my inspiration. She taught us well and I loved it,” Mary revealed.
Hard though it is to credit now, science subjects only became available to Mary after she had done her Inter or Junior Cert and she had just two years to make up for lost time and secure the points she needed for Medicine in UCC.
There too, her mentor Professor Katie Keohane was a key role model and encouraged Mary's growing interest in research and the academic side of medicine.
A fellowship in London followed her graduation in Medicine and she began the five-year journey to become a consultant pathologist.
“I got my MD the day before we married,” Mary explained. Her husband is Feoghanagh-born property developer Jim Long whom she met at an Irish wedding in London.
Together they had a family of four while their career paths also developed.
Mary initially began her research career in lung disease but then following a merger of hospitals, and another inspiring mentor, Michael Davies, she began her specialisation in cardiac pathology.
“Once I took it on, I loved what I was doing.”
Professor Davies, she explained, pioneered investigation into the whole area of sudden death in the young.
It happened of course, Mary explains, but people didn't talk about it. They just accepted it.
That initial research has now grown substantially and new information continues to emerge.
The main cause is primarily family genes, Mary explains which is why screening of all family members is vital.
Unfortunately, people don’t always interpret the signs correctly, she says. These include chest pains, excessive breathlessness during exertion and black-outs, in children or young people under 35.
“Black-outs are the classic red-flag symptom,” she explains and a person should be immediately assessed by a cardiologist and a neurologist.
Screening can detect the abnormalities in a young person's heart.
“In Britain, we are trying to bring in screening for all children in school involved in sports.”
The main cause of abnormality, Mary explains, lies with the electrical impulses in a child’s heart and cause about 50% of sudden deaths. Some 20 different disease types involving electrical impulses have already been identified. Rare conditions are responsible for about a quarter of deaths while cardiomyopathy accounts for the remainder.
However, Mary goes on: “70% of deaths are asymptomatic, or out of the blue, a thunderbolt. It is a rare entity,” she adds.
But in Britain, there are 12 cases a day in a population of over 60 million. In Ireland, there are approximately one a week or 70 in a year.
Now Professor of Cardiac Pathology at St George’s Medical School, Mary runs the teaching programme in cardiac pathology, training up the next generation of pathologists but also co-ordinates the CRY programme in Britain.
In her role, she also gets to review virtually all the cases of sudden death in those under 35 and is often called on to review Irish cases.
She also sees it as part of her work to speak to the families affected by sudden death.
“The effect on the families is devastating,” she acknowledges.
But she stresses: “It is preventable. Family members can be treated. They can be detected and can do specialist tests.”
Her objective is to see the incidence of CRY fall.