A particular operation may help Tony Morelli sing again but he is the victim of an NHS waiting list which seems to get longer by the day. SANDRA CHAPMAN talks to the showband legend who would give a lot to be thrilling audiences again
When he took the stage of the Waterfront Hall for the second of two showband concerts a few years ago, Tony Morelli brought the house down with his magnificent singing voice.
This was a man who had made a recovery from major heart surgery and who looked set to enjoy the revival of the showband era which had kept Ireland enthralled for decades.
Tony was an early member of the Dave Glover Showband but was perhaps better known for his time with the Witnesses Showband.
For such a small man, his towering voice was legendary and, at the Waterfront in Belfast that night it was as though he had never been away. The audience adored him.
Life is very different for Tony today. Not only is that magnificent voice silenced, he can no longer climb the stairs at his Belfast home nor can he take a walk. Tony lives with heart failure, a condition which affects upwards of 20,000 people throughout the UK. It's possible a medical procedure could help him regain some quality of life but he can't afford to have it done privately and the health service is letting him down. He hasn't the energy to complain.
Heart failure is a disorder in which the heart loses its ability to pump blood efficiently throughout the body. It may affect the left, right or both sides of the heart. If the left half of the heart fails (left ventricular failure), fluid will build up in the lungs due to congestion of the veins of the lungs. If the right half of the heart fails, general body vein pressure will increase and fluid will accumulate in the body, especially the tissues of the legs and abdominal organs (of these, the liver is the organ most likely to be affected).
The last time Tony was in hospital, he had the equivalent of 10lb weight of fluid removed.This is a temporary procedure and the fluid gathers again. Unfortunately, Tony is familiar with heart disease. It killed his mother at 67, the same age he is now, and his father who was 76. Tony had rheumatic fever when he was a young teenager, a condition that can lead to scarring and inflammation of the heart structures. He fears that that condition may have had something to do with his failing health now. He spent three years off school recovering.
But music was his life and he eventually developed the powerful singing voice which took him all over the world, helping to establish Irish showband music internationally.
In the early days, his day job was laying wood-block floors, then, when the showbands petered out, he went into cabaret and was well known around local clubs such as the Abercorn, the Piccadilly and the Trocadero. But he was feeling the strain and at 55 had a triple heart by-pass.
So his brave comeback at the Waterfront some years ago had particular poignancy for his fans. But it didn't signal a return to the big time. Tony: "I was fine after the by-pass but every so often you have to go back for check-ups. At one of these, it was discovered that one of the arteries to my heart was fuzzing over. The procedure to deal with this involves a stent being put into the artery to open it up. It involves not much more than an overnight stay in hospital." Unfortunately for Tony, the procedure, which was performed two years ago, became much more serious and he began to bleed internally. He was whisked away for emergency surgery and was warned he might take a while to recover. His health didn't improve and eventually he was diagnosed with heart failure.
Tony: "It means that one of the heart chambers is not working properly and fills with fluid. It restricts me terribly. I can hardly walk at all, a few yards and I'm out of breath." His condition is complicated by the fact that he also has Type 1 diabetes and has to inject insulin twice a day. He takes 14 different tablets a day, some of which cause him to cough. Singing is out of the question.
And it's this inability to sing that hurts so much.
Tony: "The showband days were great and I had a wonderful life all over the world. But I accept that my health may have been compromised even then because you were always on the move and not eating as well as you should. I suppose we lived on junk food." Today he lives quietly with his wife Kathleen, with whom he has four children and nine grandchildren, at Ladybrook in Belfast.
He accepts he has no quality of life and a heart transplant is out of the question. But there is a procedure that may help. Tony: "It's a procedure that brings the heart back into rhythm which may prevent it filling up with fluid. But I believe there are hundreds on the waiting list for this.
"I'm waiting for an appointment to see a consultant and the waiting time for that is five months alone. If I am suitable for the procedure, I'd then go on another waiting list and this could take a long time. It's a very expensive procedure to have done privately." When once he gave pleasure to thousands, today Tony says he has no contentment in life: "It's very distressing and I'm depressed nearly all of the time. All I can do is live in hope." His former fans also live in hope of one day seeing him again on stage.
* For more information on heart failure contact the NI Chest Heart & Stroke Association, telephone 028 90 320184 or the Helpline 08457 697299.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO AVOID HEART FAILURE FROM ISCHAEMIC HEART DISEASE?
* avoid smoking
* avoid overeating
* exercise regularly
* eat a healthy, low-fat diet
* if you have high blood pressure have it treated as soon as possible
HOW COMMON IS HEART FAILURE?
It's a condition which becomes more common with increasing age. At least one in a hundred 55-year-olds and one in ten 80-year-olds have some degree of heart failure. It is uncommon in younger people.
WHAT CAUSES HEART FAILURE?
Heart failure is a complication of a heart condition. Various heart conditions can affect the ability of the heart to pump well. Ischaemic Heart Disease (IHD) is the most common cause. This is sometimes just called heart disease and some people call it hardening of the arteries to the heart. In this condition, the blood flow to the heart muscle is reduced by narrowing of the heart (coronary arteries) The heart muscle may then not function as well as normal. Other symptoms of IHD may occur, such as angina (heart pains).
The severity of heart failure ranges from mild to severe. It often depends on how bad the underlying heart condition has become. In many cases, the symptoms of heart failure can be eased with treatment. However, symptoms tend to become gradually worse over time.
Symptoms will be breathlessness, fluid retention in the legs and tiredness.