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Giving up sport to save his life

Phil was born with a congenital heart condition, which has required a number of heart surgeries over the years. A keen athlete, Phil had to give up competitive sport but believes it’s worth it for the life he’s got to enjoy.

Phil was an athletic young man, who excelled at sports in school despite being told there was a problem with his heart around Christmas 1959.

“I was taken to Oamaru Hospital and stayed there for six weeks, largely in the dark as to what was going on,” he says. “Then, supposedly for a holiday, I ended up in Greenlane Hospital.”

Phil was diagnosed with a bicuspid aortic valve, and it was then that he had his first surgery to fix his aorta. 

“After the surgery, I was able to play sport again at school and got very good at it. Particularly running, where I competed in 400m races regularly.”

“When I went off to university I started to compete at a high level and was even at a training camp in 1971 for the ‘74 Commonwealth Games,” Phil recalls. 

“Then, in my second year at university I had a relapse and was back in Greenlane after what we thought was a heart attack,” he says. “Actually, it turned out to be a virus in my diaphragm that had tightened up all my muscles.”

It was then that Phil was told he had to give up sport and athletics or risk the health of his heart for the rest of his life.

“My blood pressure was too high. I did what they told me and kept going to have check-ups at the hospital regularly,” he says. 

Phil found it difficult to give up the camaraderie of team sports in his twenties, such as rugby and being part of a club, but he found a new passion in hunting and fishing out in the wild.

It wasn’t until 2006, when Phil was 54, that he needed further heart surgery, this time to insert an aortic stent, a tube to open up the part of the aorta where he’d had the earlier operation.

“I’d been able to live a relatively normal life until then despite the many hospital visits over the years,” he says.

Phil’s condition gradually deteriorated over the next 10 years and he found himself increasingly breathless and extremely tired. Even walking to the letterbox became an effort.

“It turned out my aortic valve had calcified and needed to be replaced with a mechanical one,” he says.

Phil knew another operation was needed but it took him a year to prepare mentally to go through it all again.

“My childhood experience really affected me but I was resolved that it had to be done.”

The operation was performed in 2014, leaving Phil with a massive scar and a noisy but efficient mechanical valve. 

In 2016, Phil was back in hospital again in Greenlane.

“My last surgery was in 2016 and was because my aortic stent had collapsed,” he remembers. “The surgeons did such a great job.”

Phil has since seen amazing improvements in his blood pressure.

“Before everything, I was 180/90. Then I came down to 150/60 and now I’m at 115/60,” he says. “I used to be huffing and puffing climbing the stairs but now I’m feeling really fit for 70 years old! I’ve also lost over 10kgs in the last six years and I put it down to walking around 2-3 hours a day.”

“It was hard at the time emotionally, but my family was always there for me, and my wife put up with me all the way through,” he says.

Phil’s outlook for the future is to continue to have an active lifestyle, but also to share his experience and get others to talk about theirs.

“Now I want to talk to others who may be going through the same thing. Talking about it has helped restore my energy and positive attitude.”

His final advice would be to not hesitate to get the surgery you need or to make the changes that can save your life.

“Just go ahead and get your surgery done,” he says. “Judging from my experience, your quality of life will only get better and better the sooner you do what you can for your long-term health.”

Heart disease can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
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