HE HAS been a musical hero to many and now Billy Doherty, drummer with Derry band, The Undertones, is helping lead the fight against heart disease as a 'Local Heart Hero' with NI Chest Heart and Stroke.
The 62-year-old has joined a group of community fundraisers, cardiac consultants and heart patients selected by the charity to help promote new risk detection research as well as a dedicated heart care service for patients across Northern Ireland.
Entitled Heart Strong, the initiative is the first of its kind here and will be piloted early next year, with the aim of bridging a growing gap between rehabilitation after treatment and getting back to normal life.
The talented Derry man is certainly well placed to comment on the subject after suffering a sudden heart attack and stroke within days of each other during Christmas 2017, the double health whammy leaving him "knocked for six".
Two years on, though, the musician, who grew up in the Creggan estate, has eased himself back behind his drum kit and last month was playing with The Undertones at the Madness House Of Fun Weekender in Minehead, England, before preparing for gigs in the US, Britain and continental Europe next year.
"I'm not being silly, though," Billy is quick to point out, "I have been given the go-ahead by doctors. I stopped playing – and the band stopped with me – when I was recuperating, but now I've got a clean bill of health.
"Drumming with The Undertones keeps me fit; it's like the engineer stoking a train to keep it at full speed which is relentless and exhilarating. When I hear that fast 'one-two, on-two-three-four' count-in the adrenalin rushes through my body with anticipation. I love it."
A seemingly fit and healthy working musician, Billy didn't see his health crisis coming and after feeling pain in his arm following a gig in Belfast, simply put it down to being over-vigorous on the drums on that particular evening.
"I was getting these pains in my arm, but I thought nothing of it," he recalls. "I actually jokingly said to John, the guitar player in the band, 'I think I'm taking a heart attack....'. I had been in good health generally and the thought that something like that could happen – well, it was the thing furthest from my mind."
But as the pain persisted after another gig with the band in Dublin, the drummer could no longer simply shrug it off and, on the advice of his sister Pauline, a retired nurse, he reluctantly took himself off to get checked out by this GP – but not immediately.
"I was playing in Dublin the next day and after we had a sound check, I was walking through the Temple Bar area and got the pain again," he recalls. "I still put it down to a muscular thing with the drumming, but the morning after the show the pain was so bad it woke me up. I still didn't do anything, though. I came home, walked the dogs and then realised that something wasn't just quite right. I phoned Pauline who told me straight away that I was taking a heart attack and needed to go to hospital."
Yet, despite fairly explicit warning signs, Billy went to work the next day in his 'day job' as a buyer with a computer firm in Derry, still dismissing his symptoms.
"Eventually, I thought I really should take my sister's advice, so I went to the doctor's and was told that I'd better get myself over to the hospital," he says. "At that stage, I still thought I'd be in and out again in no time, but after they put me on the ECG machine, the doctor thought it wasn't working correctly and said he needed to do it again.
"He did – and then said, 'Mr Doherty, you're about to have a massive coronary'. I couldn't believe it – within half an hour, I was on a stretcher being escorted to the cardio unit and being told I would die if I didn't get stents inserted immediately. Two hours earlier, I had been walking about and in work."
An unwilling patient, he was badly shaken but less than a week later worse was to come when Billy suffered a TIA (Transient ischemic attack) often referred to as a 'mini-stroke' and caused by a temporary disruption in the blood supply to part of the brain.
He was back in hospital again, this time staying for five days for treatment and tests which discovered "a little part" of his brain had been damaged. He says without irony that he can't remember which part.
"The TIA – there are no such things as 'mini-strokes'; they are all strokes – was unbelievably frightening," he says. "I can't really explain how awful it was; it was the most bizarre thing. They tell you when you're going through surgery [for the stents] that there's a risk you may have a stroke afterwards, but the risk goes down in a day or two. This happened to me nearly a week later.
"I had been out with my mate and we were taking my dogs to get groomed for Christmas and I found myself really struggling for words ...it was very, very strange. I got home, had my tea, sat on the sofa and then, bang, this pain shot through my head and then this sensation that I can only describe as an earthquake.
"Everything started moving – my phone, the sofa – and I couldn't understand why. Thankfully, I got a little window where it kind of eased and I phoned my sister and then 999 – but that's when it really kicked in."
At that point, Billy's arm became locked and he was unable to move the phone closer to his ear.
"I could hear the other person from the emergency services asking for my name and where I lived, but I couldn't answer. The thing is, you know exactly who you are and where you live, but you can't communicate it and that was the weirdest thing. Your whole system kind of shuts down while your brain is trying to process all the information."
After thrashing about in "unknown waters", Billy was forced to introduce different diet and lifestyle changes and has nothing but praise for the support of medical professionals, his partner Bernadette, sister Pauline, family members and bandmates who helped him on his journey back to health.
"I had to wear a little heart-rate monitor during fitness training and the first week after a heart attack, for instance, you can't go upstairs and you have to stick to the rules to let your heart readjust," he explains. "The human body is an incredibly complicated and wonderful thing and we should respect it.
"At the start of my recovery, I did feel like a burden and I was easily annoyed by people, but what I have learned is that everyone has your best interests at heart. Men are supposed to be tough and we ignore things, but my message is simple – if you feel unwell, get checked out: it could be something minor, but it could be something more serious, whether you want to believe it or not."
:: Visit nichs.org.uk/localhearts to find out more about local heart heroes.