“It hasn’t stopped me from doing anything”

Born with a congenital heart condition, Rob had his first cardiac procedure in 1956 and his most recent in 2019. He’s thankful that advances in cardiology have allowed him to enjoy a full and active life.

Rob was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital condition that affects the structure of the heart and stops the normal flow of blood around the body.

In 1956 two-year-old Rob travelled from his home town of Palmerston North to Auckland’s Greenlane Hospital for his first heart procedure. Led by renowned New Zealand doctor Sir Douglas Robb, the medical team inserted a shunt – a temporary measure to allow a better flow of blood to the lungs.

Five years later, Rob underwent open-heart surgery performed by pre-eminent cardiologist Sir Brian Barratt-Boyes.

In order to prepare him emotionally for the surgery, Rob’s parents took the unusual step of sending him to a hypnotist.

“The hypnotist instilled in me the right attitude for the operation and I simply wasn’t worried about it. It wasn’t that I was being brave, but I just went in there and went, ‘yep that’s okay, that’s cool.’  I think it prepared me well for the operation. I just wasn’t scared.”

Recovering in Greenlane

Rob had a three-week recovery period in Greenlane Hospital and he has some precious memories from that time. The first was his father organising a ward visit from sports legends Murray Halberg and Peter Snell.

“My mother picked them up from in town and it was one of those Auckland days when the heavens opened. She had a little old Morris 1000 and she was driving through Auckland thinking ‘I’d better be careful, I do not want to crash with these two guys.’ 

“It was like royalty coming to see you in those days, they were megastars. I can remember Peter Snell bringing his medals and the whole ward was ecstatic. It was just neat.”

He also recalls horrible food, a mean matron and the camaraderie shared by the boys on the cardiac ward.

“The food was shocking, really terrible, I just couldn’t eat it sometimes. One night in the dining room there was this little guy and he was getting his food and he would put it to his mouth and then he would flick it under the table. The yucky matron came along and patted him on the back and said ‘good boy, good boy’. We were all laughing away. The yucky matron thought he’d cleaned his plate but actually, there was a pile of food on the floor.”

After three weeks, Rob returned to Palmerston North where a further period of recovery followed at home.

“I wasn’t allowed to do anything too strenuous until about six months had elapsed. I spent some time after the operation at home and clearly my schooling suffered a bit, but I wasn’t worried about that. As a child that was the last thing on my mind.”

“Getting on with my life”

Once through the successful surgery and the recovery period, Rob was ready to get on with life.

“I came out of Greenlane, I shut the door behind me and basically thought, ‘now I’m getting on with my life’. I was always aware that I couldn’t run or bike quite as fast as other people, or do whatever, but that was the only impediment. And it never worried me, all I wanted to do was to be out there doing it.”

In fact, it wasn’t until a game of softball during Rob’s intermediate years that he ever really considered how serious his heart condition might be.

“I hit a really good ball and I ran like the wind. Then the teacher called me over and said, ‘Rob I don’t want you to run so hard because I don’t want you dropping dead on me’.”

The thought gave the then 12-year-old Rob quite a fright.

“It had never crossed my mind, before and it was like being hit in the head by a softball bat frankly, not that I’m blaming the teacher. I kept it to myself for a couple of weeks and then I asked my mother, ‘Am I really going to drop dead?’

“The long and short of it is my parents dealt with it very sensibly. They said, ‘We can put you on a plane, you can go and see Sir Brian and discuss it with him, because he’s got no worries’. So that was a really mature way of dealing with it. I said ‘no’ to the plane although there was still a lingering concern that I never expressed for a while. But as I got older I thought, ‘well you’ve made it this far so you must be OK.’”

As an adult, Rob continued to live life to the fullest, and the heart condition didn’t slow him down. He became a criminal defence lawyer and ran a legal practice in Rotorua, while juggling a busy family life with his wife and three sons.

“The heart condition had zilch impact, it didn’t stop me from doing anything. I did triathlons, a half-marathon, I waterskied, snow skied – whatever I wanted. I wanted to just get on with my life.”

Silent heart attack

It was a number of decades before Rob’s heart caused him further trouble. Then at the age of 64, he had a heart attack. The symptoms came on gradually, and free from high cholesterol or blood pressure problems, Rob had little reason to think it was his heart.

“Everything was normal as far as I know. No one was worried about me and when I had the heart attack I didn’t even know I’d had it, I just thought I had a case of the flu.

“I ignored the signs and I should’ve known better because I would get breathless say carrying my briefcase up the stairs. That was about the only thing I noticed, but it was becoming increasingly difficult and then I kept putting off going to the doctor as I thought I’d just got the flu, you know sore joints, and was coming right.”

When Rob finally went to the GP she referred him immediately to the emergency department. There he was told he’d previously had a heart attack and now had heart failure. At first he found the doctor’s pronouncement difficult to accept. 

“The doctor came in and said “you have heart failure” and I said, “No, no, no, don’t give me that.  I’ve got the flu and I started arguing with him.”

Transfer to Waikato Hospital

Rob was transferred to Waikato Hospital for an angioplasty to open up his arteries. It was a stressful time for the family because while Rob was having his cardiac procedure in Hamilton, his wife was having back surgery in Auckland.

Rob ended up spending a few weeks in Hamilton, after a couple of initial complications with his procedure, as well as delays for more urgent cases.

“I had great support from friends, especially a health nurse practitioner. I didn’t ask many questions but she would give me good advice. At one stage before the final procedure, I thought, ‘Good God I haven’t got anything left in the tank. Because they had a few goes and I was losing the petrol in the tank basically, not psychologically but physically, I was just wasting away.”

His adult sons also came up to Waikato to support him.

“We are quite a tight unit and it was great to have the boys were there for support.”

Lifestyle played a part

On reflection, Rob thinks that, despite his physical activity levels, other lifestyle factors contributed to his heart attack.

“I was a lawyer and I think two things went towards the heart attack. One was that I was burning the midnight candle. I was working seven days a week and I would work two or three nights a week. So the pressures of the job, plus I had a tendency to eat bad snacks at work.”

When he returned to Rotorua after his stint in Waikato hospital, Rob decided things needed to change.

“I came home and said, ‘I’m never practicing law again.’ I sat around for maybe a month and then I thought, ‘I don’t like this, I’ve got to go back to work’. My cardiologist had said guys like me need a purpose and I had no purpose. Watching golf on TV or even playing golf, I just got bored.”

Rather than giving up work completely, Rob decided to reduce the size and scope of his legal practice.

“Prior to the heart attack I had four offices and I had separate desks in each one, I would go from office to office to office, plus as a member of the local Health Board, I had those commitments too. I was multi-tasking all the time I think. Now I’m in a ‘broom cupboard’ with a desk and computer, and I just do parole and mental health work. I used to do lots of appeals but while appeals in themselves are not that stressful, the jury trials they’re stressful.”

CRT device inserted

More recently Rob has had a CRT-D (Cardiac Resynchronisation Therapy Device) inserted – a device to help treat his heart failure.

He’s also had to make some lifestyle changes, being sensible about workload, diet and exercise.

“I’ve got no regrets, I enjoyed working as hard as I did, but now I can’t and I don’t want to. And I can’t exercise like I used to. For instance, I’ve got an electric bike now and I’d vowed I’d never have an electric bike, so that’s a lifestyle change. But at least I can still go out biking.”

Rob is thankful that the skill of his clinicians and advances in medical technology have given him the opportunity to get on with a full and active life, largely unimpeded by his heart conditions.

“‘I’ve been incredibly lucky. With every heart event I have had the right technology and the right clinicians at the right time. I’d really like to thank all the surgeons, doctors, nurses, allied health professionals who have been so kind and passionate during my treatment.

“The surgeons who operated on me are indelibly printed on my mind. Sir Robb – the true English gentleman. Sir Brian and his piercing eyes – his intelligence was palpable, even to a child. Then there was Dr Raj Nair, who I always thought of as ‘the general’. He had a commanding presence and from the instance I met with him I knew he would get me through. And finally, Professor Martin Stiles, the electronics whizz kid, who undertook my most recent procedure. I remember being surrounded by all the latest technology and thinking that he and his assembled team were preparing me for a trip to the moon!

“Peter Williams QC once said to me ‘kiwis can do it’. And we can. I believe we have the best medical system in the world.”

 

Shared April 2021

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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