Starting from scratch after heart surgery
Going from the height of fitness to needing an aortic valve replacement was a big adjustment for Rich, still in his twenties when he had his surgery.
“It was like starting again. In terms of learning to walk again, breathe again.”
Growing up, Rich was active and sporty. In his high school years he could be found on the rugby and cricket fields running around with a smile on his face.
During his first year at Lincoln University, Rich aged 20 found out there was an issue with his heart. A rugby training where he got a “ding on the head” later led him to a neurologist and a cardiologist. There, he got further scans done and found out he had a bicuspid aortic valve. Two of the three leaflets fused together.
For nearly 10 years Rich was monitored and went through multiple scans. One day at an annual check-up at the age of 29, Rich was notified by the cardiologist that he was in the risk zone.
Time for surgery
At the time Rich’s cardiologist was based in Christchurch, close to where Rich was studying. Given he was now working in Auckland, Rich had to make a big change by transferring to a new cardiologist and heart surgeon in Auckland. As luck would have it, Rich’s surgeon turned out to be his cousin’s girlfriend’s dad, who recommended surgery should be done as soon as possible. “Something could go wrong so best to get on with it.”
On 17 January 2014, Rich went into the surgery unusually calm and relaxed, while taking in the “funny experiences” leading up to the surgery. He found the preparation humorous as it included removing all his body hair from tip to toe.
After the four-hour surgery, Rich woke up in intensive care where he says the support and care was outstanding. In less than 12 hours they had him out of the bed and walking around.
“It was pretty incredible...”
The journey of recovery began by spending seven nights and eight days at the hospital. The first day out of intensive care was spent bed-bound.
It was tough. Simple things such as getting out of bed and going to the toilet had to be learnt all over again. Walking stamina was built up in slow strips, walking 20 metres one day, 30 metres the next. Having the first shower post-surgery was also very exciting and felt like a big accomplishment.
“When I got to these milestones, it was a good sense of achievement.”
One of the most memorable nights at the hospital was around 1.00am during day four of recovery when Rich built up the courage to get out of bed. However the buzzer was wrapped around his arm and got caught when he tried to roll over and get up which yanked him back. It did not bother him as he sat and began untangling it, when suddenly four nurses rushed in asking him if he was alright. Turns out that the jolt had sent him into atrial fibrillation. He could not feel it but his heart beat was at 180 - 190 beats per minute.
Later when he was having difficulty sleeping while trying to recover from this, a nurse came in. “Right Rich, come on we’re going to sort you out.” She got him up and doing breathing exercises. Half an hour later, his heart beat slipped back into a normal rhythm.
“It was weird because I thought that activity would have agitated it.”
Going home was a whole new experience. Living with flatmates also resulted in people being really curious about what he had gone through and how he was doing. The majority of Rich’s time was spent in bed, watching movies, going for short walks and doing breathing exercises.
That initial month was difficult – he had to adjust from being sporty and active to being tied down to a bed. He also didn’t have any connection to anyone else going through something similar who might have been able to relate.
After the first two weeks he decided to move back to his parents’ house in Fielding. This meant a calmer atmosphere, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
He also started soft tissue massage before going back to work three and a half months’ post-surgery. However, Rich wishes he had slowed down and eased into it. The surgery did have side effects on his short-term memory, which was frustrating when it came to work. Before, when people asked him questions he would be able to respond off the top of his head. But now, he did not have this ability anymore.
Furthermore he developed anxiety – something he had never had before in his life. Presentations in front of groups of people became confronting and this became another thing he had to deal with and overcome.
It has now been two years since his surgery and it has taken all this time to get back to feeling like he did before the surgery.
In another 10 years he will need to undergo this surgery again, but Rich looks upon the whole journey as a learning experience. “Lots of ups and downs and bumps and lots of really good times.”
Shared February 2017