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I'm so lucky!

By Patricia Richmond

I was born in 1949, a healthy baby, and had a fairly normal childhood. When I was 15 years old I started a job as a packing worker at a soap and shampoo retailer in Leeds. To be able to work there under the age of 18, you had to undergo a medical assessment to show that you were fit enough to do the physical work required. My medical assessment seemed to take a long time, however the doctor told me he would write to my doctor and that I had nothing to worry about. I struggled to sleep that night, as I did worry a little, but soon after I forgot about it, as you do when you’re young. 

Six months later I was visiting the doctor, as I had fallen pregnant with my daughter, contraception was not quite what it is now, back then – not that I would be without my lovely daughter! During the appointment my doctor mentioned “the heart trouble”, to which I replied, “What heart trouble?” I then realised, that must have been what the letter from my medical assessment was about. 

During my pregnancy I was looked after by a Cardiologist called Dr Whittaker. I continued to be his patient for a number of years after. At that time I was unaware of the seriousness of my condition, the symptoms of which are breathlessness and extreme tiredness, however I just thought this was due to having to care for a young child! 

My blood pressure was monitored for about two years at regular intervals and even at that point I wasn’t aware of what exactly my condition was, until one day my doctor told me that I needed an operation on my aorta. I asked why. Being nineteen, I thought I was going to live forever! Be that as it may, he told me that if I didn’t have the operation, it would shorten my life.

I thought about it a little, but I didn’t think much of it until about a week later I was moving my daughter’s pushchair off the bus and while I was unfolding it, she ran away. I tried to catch her but I couldn’t run fast enough. The bus pulled away at speed and if she had run towards the road that would have been it! That was when I realised, I really needed the operation. 

My operation, repair for coarctation of the aorta, took nine hours I believe, performed by a surgeon called Mr Wooler.  As soon as I woke up I couldn’t believe how much better I felt, in fact I couldn’t remember ever feeling so well! I think the procedure was fairly new at the time, but Mr Wooler struck me as a formidable man, and I didn’t dare ask him anything, nevertheless, he saved my life. 

Two years after my operation, my son was born, and everything seemed fine for about 11 years until I started to get tired and breathless again. I did not think that this was related to my aorta just that it was frustrating feeling like that but not knowing what was wrong. After a while I had a check-up and it was my aorta again. I needed a second operation. 

My second operation was carried out by a fantastic surgeon, Mr Inescue. He was, again, a man you had to have confidence to speak to, and in those days, I didn’t. This procedure involved my aorta being patched with pig’s tissue; this differed from the first procedure, as at first the material used was man-made. 

Again after the operation my health improved. Although I had my physical limits, I learnt to ballroom dance with my husband and some friends, participated in gym classes, and just tried to live a normal life. It was great! The benefits of this operation lasted for about 20 years, until 2002, when I started to feel extremely tired again, so much that I struggled to get to work, which was a shame, because I loved my job. As well as this, I now had the added symptom of pains in my legs, which emerged to be claudication (a condition in which cramping pain in the leg is typically caused by obstruction of the arteries). 

This was a very difficult time. I had multiple tests such as MRI scans etc., and again, I was offered surgery. I was due to have my aorta patched in October 2004, when the surgery had to be abandoned.  It was found that my aorta, oesophagus and lung, had fused together due to scarring left by my previous operations. Mr Watterson, the surgeon, said he could not carry on with the operation without permission from my family due to the risk, and it would need to be completed at a later time. 

In the end, the decision was made for me when my vascular surgeon Mr Mavor and Mr Watteson, had a meeting and decided that they could give me an aortic bypass which would carry far less risk.  This operation was carried out in February 2005, and since then I have been able to walk far easier and I am now in good health, thanks to everyone concerned.

This graft has lasted me 11 years so far, and I hope it will last another 11, as I am now 67. Not bad considering I was told at first I may only live until I was 32. I have other issues as well; atrial fibrulation, leaking mitral valve and I have a pacemaker fitted, and numerous others that don’t really affect me at the moment. I’m still dancing, still walking and still going to the theatre. When I was in my 30s I used to wonder if I would reach 40, then 50, then 60. I’ve reached them all and I hope to have a 70th birthday party! I am confident that this would have never been possible without all of the wonderful staff at Leeds General Infirmary. I am currently under the care of Dr James Oliver and his team, and Dr Dominic Hares keeps me ticking over with my pacemaker. Not to mention the support I have received from my friends and family, especially my wonderful husband, Colin. I am so lucky! 


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