Christian’s story about a surprise diagnosis at 38

May 12, 2022

In early 2021, I was preparing to immigrate to Vancouver, Canada from the UK and attended a routine medical check for the visa application. The doctor detected a heart murmur. We had just had our second child only two weeks earlier and I was still on parental leave. We had scheduled to move to Canada in early October and planned to take a three-month sabbatical to drive through Europe in a converted van and see my family and friends in Denmark ahead of our move.

Even though the doctor needed to explain to me several times what a heart murmur was, it wasn’t clear at the time what was causing it, and I was shocked. I am only 38 and have lived a very active and healthy life and have never experienced any symptoms. Surely the doctor had to be wrong.

I was referred to a cardiologist and after a quick examination, he was quite certain that my murmur was caused by a faulty aortic valve. Of course, an ECG and echocardiogram were required to confirm this diagnosis. I was still shocked and honestly in denial. I felt fine.

My cardiologist took me through the results on a video call. The case was clear - my heart murmur was caused by a faulty aortic heart valve, which was leaking severely. In medical terms, it’s called aortic regurgitation, but I prefer to call it backflow. The fact was that the freshly aired blood entering my heart from my lungs was flowing back into my heart as it was trying to pump the blood out to my entire system. As a result, my left heart chamber had grown to compensate, which in combination with my good health and active lifestyle was the only reason why I didn’t experience any symptoms. The cardiologist and his colleagues were quite sure I needed preventative surgery right away to take the strain off my heart and avoid any future complications and irreversible damage. A CT scan was needed to diagnose further, but a consultation was already arranged with a heart surgeon. I still struggled to accept my condition.

It was a rainy day in May when I biked to my CT scan. The ride helped me take my thoughts off the fact that I had a bit of anxiety around the scan and having to have a contrast dye injected into my blood. It was luckily quite straightforward, and I was glad to learn that the dye only made me feel as if I had peed myself.

My wife and I meet with the surgeon who took us through my results and explained in great detail why a heart valve replacement was highly advised. A tentative date for surgery had been scheduled and all we needed ahead of it was for me to have my dentist ensure the absence of any infections (complete x-ray), and I needed my second COVID jab. In the meantime, I also needed to choose between a mechanical or a tissue valve.  This meeting was a turning point in my mind, as I started to accept reality.

May had been such an emotional rollercoaster for us at home with the great arrival of our second lovely child and then the sudden diagnosis of my heart valve disease. Not only did it throw a huge spanner in our lives practically with a scheduled move out of our apartment to start our camper van adventure in late June, and the scheduling of the surgery date. Our lives were on hold and it was still really hard for us to be dealing with the fact that it had all happened so quickly. In addition, it was hard for me to accept my own mortality as we had to accept all surgery comes with risks.

It was immensely helpful to be able to speak to someone through Heart Valve Voice UK who had recently been through the surgery himself, because before my surgery I had never been hospitalized, had never had anesthesia or any form of surgery. I had tremendous support from my dear wife, family and friends, but I needed to talk to someone who had been through this themselves, because it was difficult to understand what recovery would in fact look like for me and how such an event would change my life. The conversation I had with Derrick Johns was so much more than “just” a chat with a fellow ‘valver’, because it helped me accept my new reality and prepare mentally.

I was admitted to the hospital in the afternoon for tests and preparation for an early morning surgery on June 10th. It was tough to leave home knowing what was going to happen, as well as knowing that my wife and children wouldn’t be allowed to visit me due to COVID restrictions. All preparations and tests went well, and I felt ready at that point.

The next day I had a lovely call with my wife and children as I was sitting in the window of my room, watching people walking around on a beautiful sunny day. I was then picked up at 8:30 am for the surgery. After arriving at the theatre suite, I drifted away calmly and shortly after having a needle inserted in the back of my hand.

At about 1 pm the surgeon called my wife to inform her that everything went well and at about 6:30 pm I woke up by myself at the intensive care unit. Even though it was a bit scary to wake up in an ICU with monitors, lights, hoses, etc., I only remember feeling very relieved and happy that everything had gone well. To my great surprise, the team had been able to perform my valve replacement minimally invasively. This means that only part of my sternum had to be opened, which makes recovery easier and faster. That evening I was able to have a short call with my wife but struggled to stay awake. I spent the next two days in the ICU and was then moved to my own room free to move around. A really great day even though I felt a bit down on this third day, which I had luckily been warned about in advance, because it’s when the main drugs wear off.

Only a week after my surgery I found myself traveling home in an Uber on a gorgeous sunny day after what the hospital described as an “uneventful recovery”. It had of course not been without challenges for me personally having just gone through major surgery and not being allowed visitors due to COVID restrictions, but support from my dear wife and children, family, friends and the lovely hospital staff helped me get through.

To this day, I’m amazed at how well the whole thing was managed and especially how well the care teams operated. And I don’t just mean doing their job well. I mean how caring and heartwarming people had been throughout, which can only come from people with a genuine interest in the well-being of their patients. It’s something I don’t take for granted, along with a lot of other great things in life now that I’ve been given a second chance and successfully recovered in just six weeks at home with my family.

Following recovery, we packed up our entire apartment in a container at the end of August, jumped in our converted camper van, and started a road trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. Here we reunited with family and friends and got married. At the end of September, we made our final move to our new home in Vancouver where I am cycling around 60km a week without any issues.

Life is so precious when we learn to appreciate its gift. I’m thankful to have been diagnosed and fixed. Every day the little ticking from my mechanical valve (my heart valve voice) reminds me not to take life for granted and to live life to the fullest. I’m not going to waste my second chance!

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