‘Twenty years younger’ after valve surgery
John thought his mild breathlessness was due to age. But a check-up following a bout of pneumonia revealed the cause of the problem was his heart.
John has never been one to sit still. A recently retired secondary school teacher, he’s also been a volunteer for the New Zealand Fire Service and St John, and travelled the world extensively with his family.
In fact, it was during a bucket-list trip with his daughter to Yosemite National Park, California in October 2019, that John first began to wonder if his health wasn’t quite right.
“We went out to see some giant sequoia trees. They were in a very inaccessible position. It was easy to get down there, but I didn’t think I was going to make the climb back up. I was really, really puffing.”
He didn’t think too much more about it until a trip to Stewart Island, not long after his return from the United States. Once again, he noticed symptoms when walking on the trails.
“I was a bit breathless walking up a simple little slope two or three times and I thought oh, there’s something odd going on here.”
“However once I was back home and doing my ‘normal things’, I put the bit of breathlessness down to getting a bit older,” John says. “Being in the ambulance service, I knew what the symptoms were for a heart attack so didn’t think much more as Christmas approached.”
Pneumonia sparks a trip to the doctor
In the end it was an unexpected bout of pneumonia in the New Year that prompted John to seek medical attention. At the follow up appointment, he mentioned his previous breathlessness to the nurse practitioner at the local Medical Centre.
The nurse listened to John’s heart, called the rest of the staff in to have a listen, and then referred John for follow up with a cardiologist. An echocardiogram in Timaru Hospital confirmed heart valve disease and John was put on the waiting list for valve replacement surgery.
“I had never had any chest pains or any indication that there was something wrong with my heart apart from being a little bit breathless, he continues. “I wasn’t worried too much about what was going to happen although I think my wife was a bit concerned that I could’ve just dropped like a stone at any stage.”
Unfortunately Covid-19 delayed the surgery, and in August John went to Christchurch hospital for a follow up angiogram which showed some coronary artery disease. The cardiologist told John he’d need a coronary artery bypass at the same time as his valve replacement.
“After the angiogram the cardiologist said, ‘We promise we’ll see you before Christmas,” John recalls. “They obviously regarded the problem as quite serious because a week later I was called to go and have the surgery done.”
Getting back to activity
The open-heart surgery – an aortic valve replacement and single bypass – went well and John was soon on the road to recovery.
“The first two weeks were pretty rough, really painful. Coughing and sneezing put pressure on my ribcage as the six wires holding me together caused pain. But after two weeks I started to get a lot better and I’ve felt twenty years younger ever since,” he says.
“I have had a few pains in the chest area since the operation but apparently that’s normal and the cardiologist said it would take about a year or so for things to settle down, but it hasn’t affected my physical activity at all. I was able to get back and do things that I wanted to do. Walking and biking, gardening I was back to that in a big way. Things were back to normal.”
Get changes checked out
“Looking back, I would say things had been building up for a number of years without me being really aware that I had a heart problem. I just thought that I was getting older and slowing down,” John says.
Accordingly, he has an important message for others who may be experiencing symptoms of breathlessness or twinges in the chest as they age.
“These problems can just creep up on you slowly and you just think it’s normal as you get older, but you should go and get it checked with your doctor straight away, because it may mean something else is going on.
“If I hadn’t mentioned the breathlessness at the check up for the pneumonia, the cardiologist said I might not have made Christmas that year. So I’m one of the lucky ones,” he adds.
September 21 update
In September, 13 months after his aortic valve replacement, John spent four days completing the Paparoa Great Walk from Black Ball to Punakaiki, on the South Island’s West Coast. He shared the following update with us:
“I have never felt better in years and literally walked the socks off others on the track. No health issues at all and I came away elated that I’d been given a chance to do this and now plan other tramps. Many thanks to the wonderful people at Christchurch who have given me my life back to what it was years ago.
“The majority of trampers I met were on a three day walk, and I felt as though I could have done it in three too. However, the plan was to give my heart a good work out and it came through with flying colours. My experience should give other heart patients, who go through similar surgery, the confidence that they can get back to doing things they enjoy.”