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Sudden loss Family of tragic kitesurfer urge extreme sport participants to undergo heart screening

Dr Han Suyin told the inquest that some studies estimated that up to 25% of the population could be affected by myocardial bridging.

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A family photo of  Ger Fennelly (39) from Collins Avenue, Dublin who died whilst kitesurfing on Dollymount Strand on 31st October 2020...Picture  Collins Dublin

A family photo of Ger Fennelly (39) from Collins Avenue, Dublin who died whilst kitesurfing on Dollymount Strand on 31st October 2020...Picture Collins Dublin

A family photo of Ger Fennelly (39) from Collins Avenue, Dublin who died whilst kitesurfing on Dollymount Strand on 31st October 2020...Picture Collins Dublin

An extreme sports enthusiast died after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest caused by an undetected congenital heart problem while kitesurfing in Dublin Bay last year, an inquest has heard.

The finding has led to a call by the family of the dead man, Ger Fennelly, for all participants in extreme sports to get screened for a condition which a medical expert said could affect up to 25% of the population and be exacerbated by “adrenalin-driven” activities.

An inquest at Dublin District Coroner’s Court on Wednesday heard that Mr Fennelly, a father of one from Collinswood, Collins Avenue, Beaumont, was pulled from the water by other kite-surfers after getting into difficult in squally conditions off Dollymount Strand on the morning of October 31, 2020.

Witnesses described how the victim had shown no signs of life after they rescued him from the sea and carried him ashore.

However, efforts by his friends, gardaí, members of the Irish Coast Guard and Dublin Fire Brigade for over an hour to resuscitate him proved unsuccessful.

Another kite-surfer, Simon Lewis, said he had been surfing earlier that morning but had gotten out of the water because of the forecast for worsening weather conditions.

Mr Lewis told the hearing that he had gone running to Mr Fennelly’s aid after he had seen his friend “sent flying” by “a massive squall” which hit Dublin Bay.

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A family photo of  Ger Fennelly (39) from Collins Avenue, Dublin who died whilst kitesurfing on Dollymount Strand on 31st October 2020...Picture  Collins Dublin

A family photo of Ger Fennelly (39) from Collins Avenue, Dublin who died whilst kitesurfing on Dollymount Strand on 31st October 2020...Picture Collins Dublin

A family photo of Ger Fennelly (39) from Collins Avenue, Dublin who died whilst kitesurfing on Dollymount Strand on 31st October 2020...Picture Collins Dublin

He estimated that the victim was around 100-150 metres from the shore when he was sent airborne by the sudden gust of wind.

Mr Lewis said it was one of the most violent squalls he had ever experienced at Dollymount Strand but at the same time kite-surfers enjoyed such conditions as “high winds are exciting.”

The pathologist who carried out a post-mortem on Mr Fennelly’s body, Kathleen Han Suyin, said he had a congenital abnormality known as “myocardial bridging” where one of the coronary arteries goes through the heart muscle instead of lying on its surface.

Dr Han Suyin said the condition would have placed Mr Fennelly at an increased risk of suffering a sudden cardiac death, particularly as he was also a diabetic.

She told the inquest that some studies estimated that up to 25% of the population could be affected by myocardial bridging.

“It can be quite common but not everyone will have symptoms and not everyone will be at risk of sudden cardiac death,” the pathologist observed.

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Dr Han Suyin said Mr Fennelly had also suffered numerous fractures to his ribs and bones in his neck, while his left lung had collapsed.

The pathologist said such injuries could easily have caused the victim’s death on their own.

However, she said there was no evidence to suggest that Mr Fennelly had died from drowning and she was satisfied he was dead before being submerged in the water.

Dr Han Suyin said it was a “very challenging case” as the victim was always at risk of developing a fatal irregular heartbeat as a result of his pre-existing condition.

She noted heightened demands were placed on the heart by people who engaged in “adrenalin-driven sports.”

The pathologist said kitesurfing in high winds may have triggered a cardiac arrest which would have resulted in Mr Fennelly losing consciousness in mid-air.

She said the impact of the fall would have caused instantaneous death.

The dead man’s sister, Elaine Fennelly, said her brother was extremely fit and a regular participant in extreme sports including triathlons, ironman events and kitesurfing.

She recalled how he surprised hospital consultants with his level of fitness given he suffered from diabetes. Although he worked for Clúid housing association, he was also a qualified nutritionist.

“He really looked after himself,” said Ms Fennelly. “He was a pro-athlete in all aspects. He was amazing.”

Ms Fennelly fought back tears as she described how her brother had been involved in kitesurfing for 15 years and would go out “whenever there was wind.”

“He was a very experienced kite-surfer. Dollymount [Strand] was his second home,” she observed.

Ms Fennelly told the inquest that her brother’s watch, which had a heart monitor, had stopped at 8.43am that morning which indicated that was when he suffered the fatal cardiac arrest.

“I think his time was up. His heart had stopped and that was it,” said Ms Fennelly.

She said the wind had nothing to do with her brother’s death as photographs had been taken on the day which appeared to show he had lost consciousness in mid-air.

The coroner, Dr Clare Keane, returned a narrative verdict to reflect the complexity of how Mr Fennelly died from myocardial bridging which caused a fatal irregular heartbeat, while traumatic injuries to his chest and neck were a contributory factor.

Dr Keane extended her sympathy to Mr Fennelly’s family on “the loss of such a young man in his prime.”

Following the inquest, his sister urged all extreme sports enthusiasts to get screened for the potentially fatal condition.

“Everyone really should get themselves checked out as there are many people like Ger who seem perfectly fit but don’t know they are at risk,” said Ms Fennelly.

She said various fundraising efforts for charities linked to sudden adult death syndrome in her brother’s memory had raised over €21,500 in the year since his death.

Ms Fennelly, who has launched a GoFund campaign to purchase new defibrillators for Dollymount Strand, also appealed to people not to steal or vandalise such life-saving equipment.

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