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New heart valve keeps Pete cycling

When Pete had open heart surgery to replace a heart valve, he discovered his surgeon and anaesthetist shared his passion for cycling. This year he celebrated the 10-year anniversary of his operation with a 101km ride and a post-race drink with his former medical team - and he’s used his cycling skills to raise $10,000 for heart research.

“People ask me if I have heart disease. I say I had a leaking valve and now it’s fixed just like a plumber fixes your tap, it’s fixed and it doesn’t have to be fixed again,” says Pete.

He’s certainly put the new valve through its paces. A keen cyclist since the age of 45, Pete has ridden in numerous long-distance cycle races, both pre and post-surgery, including the inaugural 101km Grape Ride in Marlborough.

It was in 2005, five years after he started cycling, Pete started having problems during hill climbs. Sometimes his heart “went nuts,” and he was forced to rest. At times, he noticed his heart rate monitor showed exactly 222 beats per minute. Later he discovered that was the maximum number it could display.

Finally in 2006 Pete went for a ‘warrant-of-fitness’ with his GP, which led to an appointment with a cardiologist. A range of tests revealed a severely leaking mitral valve, and he underwent surgery 12 months later.

Building relationships with his medical team

Pete was impressed with the care he received from his medical team. “They were really, really good, the whole team, I couldn’t fault them. The cardiac liaison nurses were particularly valuable to me both in the lead up to surgery and during recovery.

“Times have really changed. Now health professionals will sit down and draw you diagrams, show you pictures, and explain what’s going on and discuss treatment options.

“I think that my wife Sheryl was more concerned than I was, which is often the case. With all the help and support from the medical team, my many questions answered, together with my faith, I was so relaxed about the whole process.”

Checking in for surgery

Pete managed to sneak in his third 101km Malborough Grape ride just two days before his surgery, making sure he rode at a sensible pace governed by a heart rate monitor.

The next day, when checking into hospital, he admitted what he’d been up to – a confession that was met with understanding from his medical team. “It turned out that both the surgeon and anaesthetist were keen cyclists, so they understood what the biking bug can do to a person...”

Pete recalls the senior registrar quoting the risks of surgery before the operation. “But he said not to worry, I was only in my 50’s and so was considered a ‘young man’. All of those risk percentages, which were low anyway, would be working in my favour.

“I remember him telling me they would use a machine to pump and oxygenate my blood with a possible side effect of hallucinations. That actually happened afterwards in recovery, but because it wasn’t a surprise, it wasn’t a drama.”

Valve repair

“By lunchtime the team had opened me up, tried to repair my valve, tested it, found it still didn’t pass the pressure and leakage tests, then cut it out and fitted a prosthetic valve and stitched me up. Not a bad morning’s work. They undid me, fixed me up and put me back together, in about the same time as I could install two or three power points in someone’s home.”

After a night in ICU, Pete was closely monitored in the Step Down Unit for a further two days before progressing to the ward. He was reassured by wearing a portable ECG machine allowing nurses remote monitoring of his heart, even when going for a shower.

“I had some dramas with atrial fibrillation which meant a visit back to the Step Down Unit. That felt like a demotion but the staff said it can just be part of the deal.”

Back on the ward Pete felt “pretty wasted” for a couple of days, but still enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow cardiac patients. “I had a guy across the room from me who had been saved with a defibrillator after a heart attack at his local pool. He was a real comedian so I needed a spare pillow to hold against my chest. Laughing was about as uncomfortable as coughing, but it was great being in a room of six guys.”   

Getting out of hospital

It was a few more days before Pete was discharged, but he was happy to be under the watchful eye of the medical staff.

“The medical team were conservative about increasing my warfarin to establish my correct dosage so I stayed several extra days, but hospital is a really reassuring place when you are healing and feeling vulnerable so I wasn’t complaining.

“One day they gave me an afternoon pass so Sheryl and I went on the bus into the city which was quite interesting, because I was thinking, people don’t bump me, I’m pretty fragile.”

Pete spent three nights out of hospital but still in Wellington while his medication was finalised, before finally flying home to Nelson. “It was a bit daunting leaving all that support but great to practice normal life within reach of the hospital before flying home.”

Getting active again

Once home, Pete initially struggled to take it easy. “I remember getting really tired going for walks. The underground power service boxes on property boundaries became my best friends, being ideal rest stops. I could sit and look around while hopefully disguising how munted I felt. 

“You feel like you want to do a lot of things. In your mind you think you can. One day I walked around Nelson airport and back home, but I paid for that the next day. For a guy, it’s pretty tough taking it as quiet as you are told, but you soon learn that the advice is correct.  You just have to help yourself and slowly build up without overdoing it and remember to stay active.”

Managing emotions after open heart surgery

Pete explains that sometimes after heart surgery emotions can be conflicting. “You go through different emotions. Sometimes you think that you don’t seem to be afraid of death any more. You came close to dying anyway and so what does it really matter. But then other times you think, this is awesome, you’ve got a second chance, so make the most of it.

“I can empathise with people who do experience some depression. There have been times after open heart surgery when I’ve thought that life isn’t going to be the same again and my best years are behind me.”

“You have just got to talk to yourself and say that was then and this is now. I did three Grape Rides in Marlborough with my old valve and I’ve now done ten with my new valve. It was special to catch up with my surgeon and anaesthetist after the race on the 10th anniversary of their handiwork.”

Giving back – joining a cycling fundraiser

Since undergoing his surgery Pete has used his passion for cycling to raise considerable funds for the Heart Foundation. Two and half years after his operation, he heard about the Heart Foundation’s Great Ride for Heart - a major fundraiser that involves health professionals and other supporters cycling the 2117kms from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

Pete joined the ride for Nelson – Murchison – Hanmer – Christchurch stages, raising $10,000 to help the Heart Foundation establish a permanent cardiovascular research programme at Auckland University.

“It was just an amazing experience to meet some of the top cardiologists in the country. I was the only ex-patient in the ride, and the friendly cyclists would ride and chat with me. They were interested in my heart journey and how I was going. 

“One of the highlights for me was that no less than three of them said, “This is really cool, when I go back to work I’ll be able to tell my patients about you. If they need similar surgery I’ll tell them a guy with a new valve biked from Nelson to Christchurch with me.” They said it would be a good example to use. 

 “It’s great to be an encouragement to others beginning or progressing on a heart journey of their own”.


Shared May 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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  • Kazi 16 May 2023

    I had a Bypass Surgery dated 30-11-2022; before that, I was a solo cyclist. I need some advice on either taking indoor cycling or neither outdoor cycling.

  • Roy 11 May 2022

    Hi, I had open heart surgery on the 19/4/22, which was just over 3 weeks ago at the time of writing. I felt my ability to exercise the same had deteriorated, to a point where one length of the pool (25M) was enough to leave me gasping for breath. It really came home when I woke up from sleep gasping for breath and my heart beating fast and out of time. A visit to our ED department in Tokoroa hospital found that I had a leaky mitral valve and my lungs where filling with fluid. I was transferred to Waikato cardiology dept, and after a battery of tests over the next 2 weeks, I had open heart surgery for mitral valve repair, tricuspid valve repair, left appendage clip, an ablation, and a triple pulmonary bypass. I am 74 years old and it is all going well so far, and am looking forward to getting back to cycling again. I walk about 2 km a day, do my breathing exercises, and joint mobility exercises.

  • Pete 20 October 2020

    Hi Alexis - Thanks for your comments. They prompted me to read my story posted ‘back in the day’ it seems now.  It reminded me again of all the great health care professionals whose skills extended my life.  My new valve has been ticking away for nearly 14 years now.  I’m pleased that you are falling in love with your reconditioned heart and that you have forgiven it for nearly letting you down.  There certainly is a few emotions post surgery aye? 
    I’m so grateful for our health system & cherish those continuous heart beats.
    Wishing you a steady & full recovery.    #heartfoundationrocks

  • Alexis 16 October 2020

    Hi Pete, inspirational story, thank you for sharing.  Jeanette, like you I’ve always been fit and active so when I was told my mitral valve was regurgitating, I too was shocked, fine one day, floored the next. I’m in week 8 of my recovery from my valve repair (great job by the ERI doctors) and looking forward to getting back on my watt bike (when allowed).  I know this knocks your confidence, it did mine, I fell out with my heart for a little while - but we’re becoming friends again :) good luck to you both.

  • Pete 1 December 2017

    Hi Jeanette.
    I’m pleased you found some encouragement and motivation from my story.  It was my main motivation for sharing it. You inspired me to crunch some numbers and sometime over this summer my mitral valve will have opened & shut (without leaking) 400 million times.
    By the time you see this your excellent surgeon may have gifted you a life membership into the ‘Zipper Club. Don’t be a heroine, just use the pain pump and stay comfortable.
    You’ll have a win-win if you asķ lots of questions as your team will appreciate patients who are interested in their treatment and recovery ...... and you will be so much better informed.
    Wherever you are in NZ you’ll be in good hands but I’ll pray for you anyway. 
    Speedy recovery, Pete

  • Jeanette 30 November 2017

    Hi Pete - it is so good to read your story and hear of your recovery from heart valve surgery. I am going in on Friday to have mine done - and it is awesome to know that you can “get back on the bike” (literally for you!) and live a normal life again afterwards. I have always been fit and active and to discover I had a leaking valve came as a huge surprise - I had no idea. Luckily we live in a country with a great health system!  I am determined to make a full recovery just as you have and lead an active life again. Thanks for sharing your experience - it has given me inspiration!