“The beat goes on”
John says his recent bypass surgery and valve replacement are not the end of his heart journey, merely the beginning. This is his story.
"John, by the way, did you know your heart has a murmur? It may be caused by a faulty valve and I suspect you may have had it from childhood."
I was 50 before I was greeted with this news and I must admit both my doctor and I simply acknowledged the finding, shrugged, and moved on, for the only reason I had sought his services was simply a checkup for an insurance policy.
You see, I’m one of these people who, upon arriving in New Zealand in 1994, did not even have a medical history. It wasn’t that it was lost or any other reason, it was simply due to having lived for 50 years without any serious medical events – with one exception, a broken arm at the age of eight. That was caused by a serious attempt to defy gravity by launching myself off a swing in a direction never intended.
It was the only time I had experienced a general anesthetic. I remember the experience as a piece of gauze covering my face, while being sprinkled with some solution from what appeared to be a replica of the small tomato sauce jug my mother used when setting the dinner table.
Nutrition and activity the key to good health
I have a theory about my good health. I firmly believe several contributing factors emanate from my parents, particularly my mother. I am the eldest of six children and as you can imagine, it was not easy for my parents to put food on the table in rural Australia after the war.
To this day, I retain endless admiration for my mother’s ability to create wholesome nourishing food, from what at times seemed to be nothing. Add this to a life in the fresh air, sport at school, Boy Scouts and camping, a paper round, and Mum always at home, ready with a glass of milk and Weet Bix with Vegemite to get you through till evening meal. We grew up as “free range kids,” and I loved every second of it.
Mum taught me well, for even today I still do not eat any junk food and her legacy has been continued by my wonderful wife Robyn, who’s ability with food and nutrition is simply outstanding.
Referral to the cardiologist
Wind the clock forward past many wonderful adventures, (some deserving to be the subject of a book), to living in New Zealand and my move to Nelson in 1999. My new GP wanted to learn more about this noise emanating from my engine room and arranged an appointment with a local cardiologist.
I had met him on previous occasions, but never imagined I would find myself in his office discussing an ongoing plan to keep an eye on my aortic valve. And so began my relationship with the cardiology team, ultrasound machine and the ultrasound technician.
Over the years, the technician and I had many discussions (including a number about his problematic bread maker) and I value his friendship and willingness to answer my questions.
I was never left in any doubt that one day my aortic valve might need replacing, and I remain always grateful for the honesty and time taken by everyone with a baby boomer who had never had a day in hospital.
Let me also say, I have never ignored or cancelled a request from this team for a checkup. I very quickly realised my unbelievable good fortune having them caring for my future health and wellbeing.
A change in my energy levels
Around mid-2018, arriving for another test I explained I felt a change in my energy levels, and a rather rapid shortening of breath. I remember saying “I’ve got a feeling where this is headed, and it starts with ‘W’.” (Wellington).
Requests for more tests went into overdrive confirming it was time, as my valve had obviously decided enough was enough. An angiogram also revealed some coronary artery disease and the need for bypass surgery.
Up until now the possibility of heart surgery had been just that, a possibility “one day”. Once confirmed, I found myself having to process information and feelings that were completely foreign to me. For the first time in my life, at the age of 74, I was to undergo a major operation on my heart for a coronary artery bypass and replacement of my aortic valve.
All of sudden everything became very real. I’m sure everyone takes time out to quietly think about these important events and I was no exception. I thought about the time and effort we had all put in during the “monitoring years”. I gained confidence from that. I gained strength from my relationship with my wife, knowing I was in a very caring relationship which was going to be so important. The professionalism and understanding of my GP and the whole cardiac team simply blew me away.
In the end I decided this was not about me at all. It was about being there in the future for all who depend on me. From that point on, in my mind, I went through the operation making plans for the future.
I approached the operation with total confidence, determined to do my bit, along with unrestricted appreciation of the talent and ability of all those involved. What an amazing gift it must be to be able to help others as they do.
Having got all that clear in my mind, I involved myself with the local cardiac support group and connected with St John, (which on two occasions, while waiting for surgery I was very appreciative of). The availability of support needs to be experienced to be believed.
We are fortunate that our local support group has a retired cardiac nurse who provides voluntary support to people in the lead up to surgery. The time she gave to come to our home and explain the procedure in more detail was really appreciated.
Waiting for cardiac surgery
What follows is I believe, one of the most difficult times of all. Waiting for news from Wellington.
The call finally arrived before Christmas and the surgery was scheduled for the middle of January.
The trip to Wellington was uneventful and following my first night in a hospital I was prepped for the main event. Sadly at the eleventh hour, my operation was cancelled due to complications with the previous patient’s procedure. I returned to Nelson to reassemble my thoughts and wait till another suitable date and time could be established.
Following a second setback, the operation finally took place on Monday January 28, 2019, and was completed successfully without complication.
Five days later, recovering well and with all signs in the green, I suggested to the duty doctor I could see little point in spending more time in hospital. I suggested I would be better off at home in an environment I could control and which would assist my recovery.
Return to Nelson
While the formalities were being processed Robyn and I visited level two of the hospital, ordered a coffee, and sat and enjoyed the pianist playing the baby grand in the foyer. The music was superb and provided the perfect catalyst to reflect on the past five days in Wellington.
I confess I became quite emotional listening to such beautiful music created by talented composers that have enriched, and will continue to enrich, people’s lives for generations to come.
I drew a parallel here. In the past five days I had been the recipient of the greatest gift of all, all due to the talent, skill and caring of other exceptional human beings. I will never forget that moment for as long as I live.
Saying goodbye to the surgeon found me at a loss for words so it was agreed that Robyn’s decision for hugs all round was the order of the day.
Reflections on the journey so far
The story of this journey started during my childhood and the eternal gratitude I have for my mother. I find it ironic and deeply satisfying that the recommendations and guidance for my recovery could have been written by Mum.
Support for each other in all circumstances has now taken on a new meaning for me. My amazing wife Robyn who has been on the journey for nearly as long as I have, struck the perfect balance by bossing me around when I needed it, yet displayed infinite wisdom when it was time for the medical professionals to practice their craft.
I do not write this as a record of a journey completed. I write it as a journey commenced.
“And the Beat Goes On.”
Shared February 2019