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Focus on the positives

The need for heart surgery came as no surprise to Hamish, he’d been living with a heart condition his whole life. He says a positive focus was the key to his recovery.

Hamish’s heart condition was diagnosed when he was just six months old. The GP noticed a heart murmur during a routine check, and further investigation by specialists in Auckland revealed a bicuspid aortic valve – a condition where the aortic heart valve has two flaps instead of three.

“I think everyone got all panicked and worried, but there wasn’t an immediate need to do anything because it was functioning normally and there were no obvious symptoms. So, they just put me on a regime of check-ups every three years,” Hamish explains.

Aside from the three yearly check-ups, the bicuspid valve had very little impact on Hamish’s early life. Always active, he played a lot of sport and represented the district for basketball.

Now 42, Hamish has continued this love of physical activity into adult life, something he now shares with his wife and two kids, aged 10 and 7.

“I play basketball, I cycle and fish, and enjoy that type of stuff. I live a very happy, healthy life.”

Aortic aneurysm develops

Over the years Hamish continued to have regular check-ups to monitor the valve and his heart more generally. It was during one of these routine checks, the cardiologist noticed an aortic aneurysm, a bulge in the wall of the aorta, the body’s largest artery.

“It became an increasing concern a few years ago. The cardiologist ordered more regular scans, over and above the usual, to get very accurate measurements and measure any changes,” Hamish explains. “It didn’t really make me worry too much because I always knew that with the bicuspid valve, that I’d have an operation to fix it and then I’d just carry on.

In early 2021 scans revealed a deterioration in his condition.

“The surgeon put it pretty bluntly,” Hamish recalls. “He suggested I do it sooner rather than later, otherwise I might end up in the operating theatre under different circumstances. It was then that the penny dropped that this actually was quite serious, even though I wasn’t having any major symptoms. It was something that could go bad rather quickly.”

Anxious wait for surgery

Hamish faced a three month wait for his surgery, and this was one of the most stressful parts of the process.

“They tell you it’s going to be a big surgery and that obviously you have to change your lifestyle afterwards, like going onto Warfarin for the rest of your life, and things with your diet and lifestyle that you need to be conscious of,” Hamish says. “And obviously there’s risks with this surgery, they don’t do it lightly. So that sort of plays on your mind as well.

“I had to take medication for anxiety. I was getting these short sharp chest pains, but the doctors never felt it was symptomatic of my condition. It was probably symptomatic of anxiety. My body was twisting itself in knots, so to speak.”

Part of Hamish’s preparation for surgery was making sure he caught up with close friends and family before the operation.

“We all got together and had a bit of a party beforehand. Just to say we love you and all that type of stuff.”

Cardiac surgery during lockdown

A week before the scheduled surgery, the country went into a Covid-19 lockdown. With cardiac surgery still going ahead, Hamish decided to proceed with the operation under Level 4 lockdown conditions.

This meant his wife and kids dropped him off at the hospital door on Monday morning and he couldn’t see them again until he was out of hospital.

“Obviously we could talk via Messenger or Facetime, but I didn’t see them in person until a week after I’d had the surgery because there were no visitors allowed during Level 4. It was just me in there and the doctors and nurses and the cardiac patients on the ward.”

Hamish had a mechanical valve replacement and a repair to his aorta. The surgery went well, and the next thing Hamish remembers was coming to in the recovery area.

“I came to and then went back to sleep for a bit, and I must have been dreaming. I’m a keen fisherman and for some reason I was having a dream about catching this massive fish. When I came to, they were all having a bit of a laugh because I was talking about fishing.”

Starting the road to recovery

Hamish found the first two nights of his recovery, in the Intensive Care Unit, a challenge.

“For the first two nights the pain was quite intense, and I didn’t really sleep at all.  I wasn’t expecting that. They had quite a bit of trouble getting the pain management right.”

However, on day three he returned to the ward and was ready to start his rehabilitation with breathing exercises and walks round the ward.

Finally, a week after surgery, Hamish went home and was reunited with his family.

“Getting home was really good, just being able to sleep in my own bed was great. The kids were back at school, so it was nice and quiet, and I could just sit on the couch or a bed and watch TV and take it easy which was good,” he says. “After about a week I was going for walks outside and round the block and what not. Every day I was getting fitter and stronger in terms of my cardiovascular fitness, and it's just been on a steady upwards path from there.”

Getting back to normal

Six weeks after the surgery Hamish has been able to return to work for brief stints and is now well on his way to his new normal.

“One of the fears you have beforehand is that you’re not going to be the same afterwards. But I feel great. The wound on the sternum holds you back from doing too much physical activity at first, but as long as you pace yourself and don’t do try and lift anything too heavy or do anything too strenuous you soon get your fitness back. I've got plenty of energy, I’m getting good sleep and I feel like I am well on the path to recovery.”

The biggest lifestyle change for Hamish following the surgery has been reducing his alcohol intake.

“I enjoyed having a few beers before but being on Warfarin means you can’t have too much alcohol,” he says. “But that's been okay, you can still enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a beer after mowing the lawns. It's not like you can't have any at all, you just have to be conscious how much you can have and remember you’re not 20 years old anymore.”

He's also had to adjust his diet and get used to the sound of the mechanical heart valve. 

“With a mechanical valve, there is a ticking noise which you have to get used to. If there’s ambient noise in the room, you won’t hear it at all, but if you’re alone or in bed at night, you’ll hear it. But you’ll get used to it. It’s a bit like living on a busy street or next to the motorway or something. It won’t be long, and you won’t notice it.”

Focus on the positive

Hamish’s advice to others facing heart surgery is to try and focus on the positive.

“It’s quite amazing when you think about it, as it wasn’t that long ago, they couldn’t have done this surgery. It is quite incredible what they can do these days for people,” he says.

“For people who are in a similar situation, I’d say it’s nothing to worry about or stress about too much. What can be achieved these days is amazing and you’ll be fine. If you go in with a positive mindset and a healthy body, you’ll come out the other side a hell of a lot better.”


Shared March 2022

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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