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Farmers, you’re not bullet-proof…

Farmers work hard and often work alone, sometimes needing a nudge to get along to the doctor’s. Neville, a retired farmer, knows the drill and exactly what can go amiss.

Shearing sheep, milking cows and fencing – it’s all hard work that can take its toll: “This is where I say to farmers to go and have that check-up,” says retired farmer and part-time radio host Neville.

But farmers tend to approach their health differently to everyone else: “The buggers think they’re bullet proof,” he says.

“I know of people that were into running marathons, and going to New York and Taupō and all those sorts of places, who just suddenly dropped dead with heart problems. So don’t think that you’re fantastically fit, go and get an expert to check it, preferably followed up with an echocardiogram.   

Neville’s concern for his peers comes from his own recent experience with heart disease. In his case, his wife – a former registered nurse – was a driving force for seeing his doctor. But other people may not have that sort of push.

“Some people can talk about (their health) and others wouldn’t want to, but for heaven’s sake get out and talk about it."

In his early years, Neville shore sheep and milked cows to save up for farm ownership. Farm work involves more than people might realise, he says, such as using the chainsaw, tractor, putting up fences or inseminating cows. There’s also the management side which involves a lot of paperwork and staying organised.

Milking cows was a 5am start, but Neville would always try to get it done quickly so he could spend time with his family, which now includes four daughters, seven grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

In 2007 an echocardiogram revealed a heart murmur and valve that was calcifying. The doctor kept an eye on Neville, but in 2015 the pain began to worsen... 

“I was working upstairs on the computer, preparing my next radio programme, when I had quite a pain in my heart and I got down from there as quick as I could because I knew that if I was to be taken out on a stretcher, stretchers don’t go round corners and they’re bloody awkward on stairs so I made it out of there quick.”

Neville spent the remainder of the day at A&E under observation – he was ashen and sweating and though nothing was detected, doctors urgently referred him to Taranaki Base Hospital for further examinations.

He was diagnosed with an aortic valve disorder, which Neville describes as “a valve that was not shutting or opening properly”.  

Open heart surgery 

Neville didn’t wait long for his surgery to replace the aortic valve. He also had coronary artery bypass graft surgery at the same time.

He recalls “the shave from neck to ankles” before the surgery. “I came to appreciate that later on when it came to removing sticking plaster – there was no hair to hang onto which could have been jolly painful.”

The last thing he remembers was “an anaesthetist on my right-hand side inserting a needle with a pipe on it, so I dare say that was the anaesthetic, and the time was between 7 and 7.30am.”

Though he was back in the Intensive Care Unit by 1.45pm, Neville didn’t regain consciousness till around 5.30 pm. “Shona and the family weren’t able to see or talk to me until my chilled body (induced hypothermia) was brought very slowly up to approximately 35/36 degrees. This was when it was considered safe for me to regain consciousness; good things take time!”

While in hospital Neville got to interact with others who required surgery. “It was quite interesting talking to the other patients, everyone had different forms of what you would call heart attacks and they were all of varying ages.”

Returning home

Neville was in some ways not ready to return home, aware of the fact he couldn’t lift things and had to be extra careful. After a week at home Neville’s wife had to go to hospital for respiratory problems leaving Neville alone for a couple nights.

On her return home, Neville learnt that the main reason she was discharged was due to her concern over him – this despite the fact that family support was very strong: “The family rallied around and helped a heck of a lot.”

Neville, however, didn’t want to rely too much on everyone else. “The thing that I saw in all that period is that you’ve got to make an effort yourself, you can’t become a vegetable.

“I was virtually smacked over the knuckles a few times and told ‘you can’t do that, you’re doing too bloody much’, so that’s a problem with an active person.”

Pain and medication

During that healing period, Neville found everyday tasks to be painful. Pulling on post-operative elastic stockings and changing clothes caused him a certain amount of pain, but he stuck with Panadol for pain relief as the stronger painkillers did not really agree with him.

Even nine weeks after surgery, daily tasks such as vacuuming were only to be done a little at a time.  

Lucky for Neville, he’d previously sold his stock, and now has only has five acres to manage. He knows it’s important for his family that he looks after himself so he uses his land to stay fit without over-exerting himself.

“Most of the time I try and do three laps around the five acres every morning and if I’m up to it at night I’ll go and do two more. I have one of these smartphones that tells me how many steps I’ve taken so I can keep a record of my activity. You’ve got to keep fit otherwise you’re going to become a vegetable.”

Neville now takes on contract grazing, and surplus grass is turned into hay or silage, so there is plenty to keep him busy.

Neville’s Access Radio programme

Neville started hosting a radio programme three years ago and says he was fortunate enough to be “considered worthy of some airspace” at Access Radio – a role that’s enabled him to meet people from all over New Zealand, Australia and Antarctica.

“I must say that they’ve done a fantastic job of promoting farming because a lot of farmers from my perspective do not want to promote farming. Even myself, I find it difficult to get farmers to promote farming.”

Life now

“I dare say that out of the things that I found frustrating was being unable to drive for six weeks on the advice given to us from Waikato, but I can drive now.”

He’s not mowing lawns even though he has a ride-on, and adds that he won’t be rotary hoeing the garden because it’s not an easy machine to start. “It can pull back very hard on the string and I thought, no I don’t want that because I might end up Neville of two halves and I don’t want that.

“There’s just constant reminding oneself, you’re coming right, for God’s sake look after yourself, you’ll make it.”

What Neville's learned

It is important to be careful around infected people after surgery, even though they mean well. Catching a cold can be quite scary, as Neville found sneezing and coughing was painful on the ribs.

“Since having surgery I find I’m more prone to allergies and flu.” Neville let the first cold he picked up just run its course, but with the second one he went to the doctor who prescribed an antibiotic.

“It may seem silly going to get treatment for a cold but I was assured that people who have had this type of surgery have a lower resistance to infection. You must take extra care of yourself! My advice to others who have had this surgery is to always seek medical intervention/advice when getting those community type diseases,” he says.

“The message I’d like to get out to farmers and the rest of the community is to have a six-monthly medical check-up and when you get to 65, maybe every three months because changes can be more easily detected.” Correction can be done sooner, and recovery is quicker, when you are younger, he says.

Parents of children need to be careful as well, because sore throats or colds at this age can develop into rheumatic fever, which accounts for so many damaged heart valves.

Second opinions are also useful, he says. “I went to a meeting a while back and the subject of heart condition came up and it was interesting the number of people that didn’t accept the first lot of medical advice they got, and then went to other advisers and that was when they ended up having heart operations.”

Neville also recommends the use of wearable fitness devices/monitors. “The other thing that people can do, and I have one, is wrist-worn devices that can keep a track of your heart beat.”

Additionally, hospital staff advocated wearing a Medic Alert bracelet. “Make sure you obtain one and wear it at all times; someone may find you in a situation where you’re unable to explain your condition!”

“My advice to people is just to ease back, keep active, keep informed, and keep up to speed with what the Heart Foundation advises – they’re doing a fantastic job.”

Finally, he adds, it helps to talk about what happened.Some people can talk about it and others wouldn’t want to, but for heaven’s sake get out and talk about it… you’re more than welcome to talk to me.” 


Shared November 2016

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

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1 Comment

  • Jill 18 February 2019

    A useful treatise from someone who has actually been through heart valve replacement.