Sometimes you have to give up what you love to live a longer life

Phil was born with a congenital heart condition, which has required a number of heart surgeries over the years. A keen athlete, Phil had to give up competitive sport but believes it’s worth it for the life he’s got to enjoy.

Phil was an athletic young man, who excelled at sports in school despite being told there was a problem with his heart around Christmas 1959.

“I had just received the gift of a brand-new bicycle and I was riding around all day,” he remembers. “Then on Boxing Day I wasn’t quite right and a bit breathless, so the doctor was called to have a look at me.”

Phil was taken to Oamaru Hospital and stayed there for six weeks, largely in the dark as to what was going on.

“I was given a jab of penicillin every six hours and that was about all I knew,” he says. “Then after that, I was taken to Auckland, ostensibly for a holiday, and ended up in Greenlane Hospital.”

It was there that Phil had his first surgery to fix his aorta (the artery that takes the blood from the heart to the rest of the body) which hadn’t formed correctly at birth. Phil was also diagnosed with a bicuspid aortic valve, a condition where the aortic heart valve forms with only two flaps instead of three.

“Everything went well after that and it was just all about recovery,” he says. “I was able to play sport at school after a while and I got very good at it. Particularly running, where I competed in 400m regularly.”

Giving up sport to save his life

“When I went off to university I started to compete at a high level and was even at a training camp in 1971 for the ‘74 Commonwealth Games,” Phil recalls. “It was around this time when I was told to ease off a little by my consultant, Tom O’Donnell.

“Then, in my second year at university I had a relapse and was back in Greenlane after what we thought was a heart attack,” he says. “Actually it turned out to be a virus in my diaphragm that had tightened up all my muscles.”

It was then that Phil was told he had to give up sport and athletics or risk the health of his heart for the rest of his life.

“My blood pressure was too high. I did what they told me and kept going to have check-ups at the hospital regularly,” he says. “I got married in 1973 and I felt like I had my life back.”

Phil found it difficult to give up the camaraderie of team sports in his twenties, such as rugby and being part of a club, but he found a new passion in hunting and fishing out in the wild.

“I found climbing hills hard, but apart from that I felt fine and I loved being outdoors,” he says. “I just stayed away from competitive sport as the doctors said I could do myself a bit of mischief if I didn’t take it easy.”

Phil doesn’t regret giving up sport in his early years, as it had already given him a good foundation to set him up for a healthy lifestyle.

“I had a good sense of fitness going into my thirties and stayed active with my children as my family was growing up.”

Narrowed coarctation requires stent

It wasn’t until 2006, when Phil was 54, that he needed further heart surgery, this time to insert an aortic stent, a tube to open up the part of the aorta where he’d had the earlier operation.

“I’d been able to live a relatively normal life until then despite the many hospital visits over the years,” he says.

“I found out that I had to go back to Greenlane and it turned out the cardiologist who did the surgery was Clare O’Donnell, who was my previous cardiologist’s daughter,” he laughs.

“As soon as I found out about that, I was so at ease because Tom was just the greatest bloke ever from my point of view. His daughter Clare was amazing too and she really treated me well,” he says.

Bicuspid aortic valve replaced

Phil’s condition gradually deteriorated over the next 10 years and he found himself increasingly breathless and extremely tired. Even walking to the letterbox became an effort.

“It turned out my aortic valve had calcified and needed to be replaced with a mechanical one,” he says.

Phil knew another operation was needed but it took him a year to prepare mentally to go through it all again.

“My childhood experience really affected me but I was resolved that it had to be done.”

The operation was performed in 2014, leaving Phil with a massive scar and a noisy but efficient mechanical valve. 

“I can hear it when I lie down but I don’t focus on it – it would drive me mad,” he says. “I think it’s fine because I’d rather put up with a bit of noise and take pills for the rest of my life than be dead.”

Phil daily takes warfarin for his mechanical valve, as well as aspirin and blood pressure medications to manage his heart after surgery.

“They are my daily stay alive pills and I take them religiously,” he says. “I’m only too glad to take warfarin as it stops your blood clotting and it doesn’t have a taste. I would never complain about it, I just get on with it.”

Final surgery and outlook for the future

In 2016, Phil was back in hospital again in Greenlane.

“My last surgery was in 2016 and was because my aortic stent had collapsed,” he remembers. “It was Clare again and she did such a great job.

“At the time my weight was too high and I’ve really turned it around since then,” he says. “I’ve lost over 10kgs in the last six years and I put it down to walking around 2-3 hours a day.”

Phil has also seen amazing improvements in his blood pressure.

“Before everything, I was 180/90. Then I came down to 150/60 and now I’m at 115/60,” he says. “I used to be huffing and puffing climbing the stairs but now I’m feeling really fit for 70 years old!”

Support is vital

“During all my surgeries, I had a lot of support from my wife and children,” says Phil, “as well as outstanding care from the hospital. It is mind-boggling how much better I feel now and what I can do.

“It was hard at the time emotionally, but my family was always there for me, and my wife put up with me all the way through,” he says.

Phil’s outlook for the future is to continue to have an active lifestyle, but also to share his experience and get others to talk about theirs.

“Now I want to talk to others who may be going through the same thing. Talking about it has helped restore my energy and positive attitude.”

His final advice would be to not hesitate to get the surgery you need or to make the changes that can save your life.

“Just go ahead and get your surgery done,” he says. “Judging from my experience, your quality of life will only get better and better the sooner you do what you can for your long-term health.”

Shared August 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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