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The Heartbeat Of Dermot Cowley

From trouble golfing in Ireland to emergency heart surgery, Dermot Cowley is alive and recovering, but plans for a new restaurant are now on hold


Inside Jake O'Connor's Public House

Photo by Todd Buchanan

"I was playing golf in Ireland over Christmas."

It sounds like the beginning of many stories Dermot Cowley has told over the years. He's an accomplished restaurateur, with McKinney Roe and O'Donovan's Irish Pub in Minneapolis and Jake O'Connor's in Excelsior, and like any native Irishman, he knows how to spin a good yarn.

"I'm playing with my brother and a couple of his friends, we’re walking around the golf course. By the time we hit our second shot, I’m 30 yards behind them and huffing and puffing. I thought, ‘This is weird,'" he tells me.

Dermot Cowley
Photo Courtesy of Dermot Cowley

As most guys would, Cowley thought it was no big deal. "Six months earlier, I’m running half-marathons! I figured I had a chest infection or something, thought I couldn’t shake a virus," he says. But after coming home and having the same chest tightness and shortness of breath, he went to the doctor. "The doctor said, 'Your heart's gone crazy.'" It was AFib, or atrial fibrillation. At least 2.7 million Americans are living with this issue, according to the American Heart Association.

"My resting heart rate was beating at 180 to 200 beats a minute, then it would shock itself into a proper rhythm. It was so fatigued, my lungs were filling with blood. That was causing the tightness in the chest and shortness of breath," he says. They put him on blood thinners and medication to try to solve the problem, but it didn't. You might have noticed if you saw him at Jake O'Connor's or at McKinney Roe—that he had gained about 30 pounds because he wasn't able to run or exercise.

"I called my cardiologist, he had me come in. He put me through an impromptu stress test, made me run up five flights of stairs, he took my heart rate—and it was still at 90. It should have gone up, but the medicine was keeping it locked in," Cowley says. So, off to the hospital for ablation surgery in early May.

Ablation surgery is relatively routine: a catheter is inserted through the groin, and the surgeon destroys areas in the heart that are firing off the abnormal electrical impulses. Dermot asked his surgeon, "How many spots did you do the ablation on? And he told me, 'Hundreds.' Hundreds!" says Cowley. It takes about three months for the surgery to fully take effect, but when I spoke with Cowley, he sounded in good health and in good spirits.

"It's a crazy world we live in. I go through a five-hour surgery, they put you out cold, and you're back at work the next morning at 10 a.m.," he says. "I’m 51 now. I’ve had a few friends die in the last couple years who are 52, 55, a few buddies who went to sleep and didn’t wake up. I feel very lucky."

Cowley had plans to open a new restaurant on Nicollet Mall in the headquarters of Target (the old Masa space) in time for the Super Bowl, but his health scare has put that on hold. Because it's going to take him three months to get the all-clear, he says he told Target to go ahead and find someone else. "It's not fair to hold them back," he says. If Target doesn't find a new restaurateur to take over the space, Cowley says he might revisit the idea.

Being an Irishman, Cowley knows a thing or two about luck. But he also knows about making your own. His advice is to not be as stubborn as he was, thinking, I'll be fine, it'll pass. He spent five weeks after that round of golf before going to the doctor. "Go get checked," he says.

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Minnesota Monthly's Taste Blog answers your restaurant and dining questions, dishes on latest discoveries, reflects on breaking news, and generally brings the plate to the page with a skilled crew of experts: Learn more about the Taste bloggers.

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