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From whitebaiting to death’s door

Michelle’s husband Gavin’s heart problems emerged back in 2004 when a whitebaiting trip to Marahau turned into a high speed drive to Nelson hospital. An aortic dissection and a collapsed aortic valve meant he needed emergency heart surgery – and complications led to more surgeries. This is their story, as told by Michelle.

On the 10th October 2004, the children and I went for an impromptu Sunday visit while Gavin crossed over the river at low tide to whitebait. We arrived back for him very early afternoon, around 1pm, when the tide was high. He suddenly sat down abruptly, and I thought to myself that he was going to snooze until the tide abated.

We ventured back to the car with his parents to head back to camp, but surprisingly he appeared, sopping wet, before we left. He said his chest was sore, so we headed to camp to get him in dry clothes, left the kids with their grandparents and headed to hospital in Nelson by road. I must confess to speeding at times, but he wouldn’t let me stop en-route to call for an ambulance to meet us. He couldn’t get comfortable.

We arrived at Nelson A&E at 2pm and I dropped him off to find a car park. He was taken through and tests done whereupon they announced he had a blocked bowel and treated him accordingly overnight.

Diagnosis changes

By 11am Monday morning I hadn’t heard that he was ready for discharge, so headed on up (we’re two minutes away) to see what was happening. He wasn’t in his room, but a nurse at the nurse’s station called his nurse for me. I swear her feet never touched the corridor floor as she came to me and said Gavin was being sent to Wellington for surgery on his heart to save his life.

All I got out was “OK.” 

In my mind I was thinking, how the hell did we get from a blocked bowel to death’s door??

Family rallied around and fetched the kids from school to say their goodbyes just in case. We were ambulanced to Nelson airport to meet the Wellington Life Flight plane. Gavin’s aortic valve collapsed on the way and was monitored on the flight over. At 4pm he went into surgery, 27 hours after the initial pain set in.

After approximately four hours, his cardiothoracic surgeon arrived to advise us Gavin was alive and in ICU. They had fixed an aortic dissection near the arch of his heart, and repaired his aortic valve as well. Things are fairly vague over the next few days for me.

Post-op complications

He was flown back to Nelson hospital on Friday 15th October. The next day, as we live so close, he was allowed home on day leave, on the proviso he returned for observation to be done. He lay on a bed and after a while, said he felt funny in his chest. I rang the hospital and said I was bringing him back in. He was having an ongoing heart attack, so they flew him back to Wellington where he was treated for a post-op blood clot causing the heart attack, and flew him home again the next day. Here he was prescribed an anticoagulant medication.

The fact that he was physically fit was in his favour, as was his exorbitantly low blood pressure, otherwise he wouldn’t have survived. I still don’t know myself how he lasted so long misdiagnosed... 

Blood pressure maintenance became a large part of his life through medication. Over the course of time, another aneurysm formed in his thoracic aortic, abdominal aortic and in his iliac vessel. So, where to from here…

Ten-hour heart operation

Monday 4th August, 2008… Hello Wellington… again. I don’t think either of us knew exactly what a major operation Gavin was in for on Wednesday. Repair of ascending thoracic aorta. Piece of cake after the last operation, right? Wrong.

A ten-hour operation ensued, during which his aorta was replaced with an artificial one from the arch to his diaphragm. His aorta was markedly dilated. His vocal cords were tangled up with the problem, which has left him with a mildly husky voice. At the time, he had very little voice at all. There was also a possibility that he would be wheelchair bound for life.

My mind still boggles at just what these marvellous surgical people can do. His was only the seventh surgery of its kind they had performed.

He was cut from mid left shoulder blade around under his arm and across his ribs to the middle of his stomach. They had to remove everything attached to the aorta, all the little blood vessels and so on, keep them alive (and him) while removing his aorta and then re-attaching them to the new grafted one. He is missing portions of his ribs that required removal to facilitate the procedure. (During a subsequent check with the surgeon, Gavin said “I’ve got bits of rib missing”, to which the reply came, “I know, I removed them.”)

Gavin spent three days in ICU, then several in the step-down unit before going into a regular cardio ward. He was discharged back to Nelson hospital on the 17th August.

Recovery: a family perspective

Gavin still swallows multiple doses of medication, but some were ceased prior to admission for the second operation. Currently he has CT and MRI scans to monitor the aneurysms. He has constant pain around his frontal rib area.

I nursed him at home for much of the time that he was off work recovering from the surgeries (22 weeks total), as I was a stay-home mum back then, and eventually it took a toll on my mental health causing depression. Some days I still find it difficult, but I am getting there.

So, this is Gavin’s extraordinary story of his survival against the odds and we owe the cardiologist and all his staff and specialists thanks beyond what we can give. Thanks to them, he has seen his children grow to adults and in recent years welcomed the arrival of grandchildren. Thank you.


Shared June 2017

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

  • Jenny 19 September 2017

    What a trying experience for all your family.
    There is a NZ support website on Facebook if you are interested in joining. You can get a lot of information from the fb sites. Search for “Aortic Dissection Support New Zealand”. Good luck with everything in future.