Heart related disease has established itself as one of the number one killers in the world, claiming more than six million people every year. This epidemic and its related statistics can only possibly increase as people continue to live unhealthy lifestyles and neglect what can only be described as the single most important muscle in their bodies. Barring any birth defects, terminal illnesses or any other extreme circumstances, living your longest and best possible life largely depends on your lifestyle and the choices you make on a day to day basis.
For me, the topic is a touch closer to home after undergoing a heart surgery in September last year, at the ripe old age of 28. Hopefully that number alone will convey to you that the circumstances and subsequent surgical procedures were necessary and not optional, nor a result of poor lifestyle habits. To the contrary, having been born with a heart condition (from a faulty aka bicuspid aortic valve), I’ve always strived to lead a healthy, active lifestyle in spite of the murmur. As a complete sports nut, regular exercise often included cricket, soccer, mountain biking and a few gym sessions a week to name a few. Regardless of these efforts, heart surgery was always an inevitable occurrence.
More recently, and leading up to the operation, doctors established that the ‘stenosis’ on the problematic valve had narrowed more aggressively, meaning poorer blood flow and extra strain on my heart which, more importantly, began to dilate the aorta behind the valve. Fortunately in this day and age surgery can correct and repair this, so in a short time span and with the guidance of a brilliant cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr Larry Rampini, as well as his colleague and cardiologist, Dr Rob Routier (possibly the best cardiac team in SA if not beyond) I took the tough decision to have the valve & aorta replacement surgery completed sooner rather than later.
Within a week, you are on table, a needle goes in, and shortly after (or as it seems) your first memory is being woken the following day with tubes being pulled from deep down your throat, and nurses telling you to cough as you regain some valuable air. This is followed by a very blurry 2 or 3 days in ICU, plus a few more days after this, with many wires in every which direction, 2 drips, a catheter, 2 drains just below your ribs (the most uncomfortable part I felt) and a tiny metal wire attached to your heart (inside) in case you need to be reconnected to a pacemaker at any stage. Expect early morning wake ups, as you are transferred from hospital bed to a chair (exciting stuff), before meals, rehab and the daily routine commences. You will need to learn how to walk and breathe (independently) again, with rehab 2 to 3 times a day. After 5 nights in ICU, you are then transferred to General Ward, which is pleasant, but somewhat daunting without the continual supervision of hospital staff and nurses.
I can say without reservation that the Olivedale Clinic ICU facility and staff in JHB must be one of the best in the country, if not the world, and despite some discomfort and the challenging rehabilitation process, you are certainly tendered for literally 24/7. Despite this you do need to contend with new patients coming in every day, with a variety of conditions, which can be a bit of a psychological battle. 4 days in, your first independent shower (albeit on a chair in a confined space) feels like an ocean of happiness being poured on your battered body, but the first one is the hardest, especially if you drop the soap as I did, something I would not recommend in those circumstances, nor in prison for that matter. Small achievements hold far greater meaning – something I thought as I precariously slid a bar of soap (in the grip of my monkey-like toes) up the side of the shower wall, only to drop it before reaching my straining hand. Needless to say I did get that bar.
Moving to general ward is a massive milestone. Besides the 5am morning wake-up call for blood tests, the remaining days in there are more exciting as you regain appetite and get to see spouse, family and friends more often and in greater volumes, which was my real reward of every day. Strength slowly increases, with walking going from 5m to nearly 100m a day as you progress quite rapidly, at least initially. Breathing improves, and it is just the most beautiful sensation as you physically feel your lungs expanding with each breath, larger and deeper each day.
The even greater, yet scarier milestone is the day you are discharged. After 9 nights in a hospital bed, most would opt out as soon as possible, but I delayed my departure by 90 minutes to catch the Springboks thrashing Namibia in the 2011 Rugby World Cup (As mentioned, I really enjoy sport). First day out is as much exciting as it is disorientating and you can expect a few anxieties and discomforts within the first week. But not worry, every twitch, niggle or skipped breathe is the not onset of a heart attack as it is now fixed! From there on in, depending on your age, it’s 6 weeks off work, off the road, and out the skies for at least 3 months (not that you should be up there in the first place), but no, you can’t fly for min 3 months after operating. The hospital will give you all the information you need, including a very comprehensive, but cautious rehab program, beginning with 300m walking per day, and slowly increasing to 3km a day over a 10 week period, resuming normal exercise at about 3 or 4 months, again depending on your circumstances.
It is certainly a life impacting experience to say the least. Whilst I was extremely well looked after, and fortunate enough to enjoy a smooth operation and recovery, nobody would ever choose to go through the process unnecessarily. You may or may not ever need surgery, nor be at risk of heart disease, but this procedure has reminded me how each breath we take is a precious gift and perhaps through the apparent simplicity with which it happens, many take each one, and their very existence, for granted. Whether you have a heart issue or not; are healthy & fit; or unhealthy & unfit; old or young… the message is the same: Your heart is your most important muscle and you need to protect it as if it were your greatest treasure… because it is.