Skip to main content

A 75-year heart journey

Graham was at primary school when he first learnt he had a heart murmur, but it was another two decades before he knew it was caused by a congenital heart condition called an atrial septal defect. This is his story.

My heart journey started more than 75 years ago when I was diagnosed with a heart murmur. In the early 1940s, at Paerata Primary School, the school nurse picked up a heart murmur and sent a note home to my parents. The doctor gave me a one-off iron tonic, but there were no further treatments or tests.

In 1951, at the age of 14, I was asked to come from Hamilton to Greenlane Hospital in Auckland for NZ's first ever cardiology conference, where leading British cardiologist, Dr. Paul Wood, was the key note speaker. I was a test case and he performed the first of my many angiograms. But at that point I didn’t have a diagnosis.

I was recalled to Greenlane about three times for testing and X-rays over the next seven years. There were no day appointments then, and you were admitted to hospital for about a week at a time.

In late August 1958, I was called up again and after some discussion I was advised that Sir Brian Barratt-Boyes, the pioneer of open heart surgery in New Zealand, would operate on me. At that stage I still did not know what was actually wrong with my heart.

Two memorable events occurred whilst I was waiting for my operation at Greenlane. Sir Barratt-Boyes performed the first open heart surgery operation using the new heart bypass machine. Then on 20 September, I was given permission by the ward sister to go to the All Blacks v Australian Wallabies rugby test which was held at the Epsom Show Grounds, just opposite the hospital.

First heart operation

On 1 October 1958, I underwent the first of my three heart operations. I later found out my operation was for an atrial septal defect, a congenital heart condition that results in a hole in the septum (the wall between the two upper chambers of the heart).

My operation did not use the new heart bypass machine. It was performed using the atrial well method. This was open heart surgery that involved sewing a patch over the septal hole while the heart was still beating. It was an intricate procedure!

The surgeons at Greenlane performed 120 operations using the atrial well method, and I was the 23rd and only the 3rd with an ostium primum defect (a particular type of defect in the atrial septum). The intensive care unit (ICU) was a single room with an oxygen tent, very different from today’s setup.

The cardiologists at Greenlane kept me under review with two yearly checks until November 1984 when they decided to replace the patch and repair the atrioventricular canal, which could not be repaired during my first operation. I was fortunate to have Sir Brian Barratt-Boyes as my surgeon for this second operation.

Between operations I continued all my sports of tennis, cricket and representative hockey. I had to give up squash as I had suffered bad palpitations after a game.

Atrial fibrillation begins

On Christmas morning 2011, I suffered an episode of atrial fibrillation. After undergoing further tests it was found that I had severe mitral valve regurgitation and that my mitral valve needed replacing.

In late March 2013, I underwent my third open heart operation at the Auckland City Hospital.

Giving back

After receiving blood during my first operation, I decided to start donating. I donated blood for forty years, making nearly 100 donations.

It was one way of giving back to the health service and helping others in need.


Shared May 2019

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

Find similar stories

View all stories

1 Comment

  • Lis 15 December 2019

    Hi Graham, I had a ostium secundum type atrial septal defect repaired by Sir Brian B-B on 8/12/1958, so it wouldn’t have been that long after you had your repair.  I remember looking out the window at the park across the road when sports were on.  I have recently started to have AF problems, which have been exacerbated by the scar tissue in the heart.  Feel lucky to have got this far anyway, but hopefully medication will help keep me going a bit longer.  All the best, Lis