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Surgery: Yes, it can be very, very scary (but you are not alone)

By Thomas Spark

I was born with Aortic Stenosis. I had a valvotomy at birth and have a fine scar to show for it!

I had a normal life; holidays, sports and never any issues. Family and friends steered me away from rollercoasters, rugby and long distance running and selected suitable alternatives so I never felt that I missed out on anything. As I got older, I knew that another operation was going to happen, the only question was when.

I developed Ulcerative Colitis, which, after many stays in hospital, including several birthdays and several operations, left me with a huge fear of hospitals. I would run away from the ward and hide from family and staff.

I passed 16, the "critical years", no valve replacement needed. I continued my 6 monthly checks.

At 23 I moved to London. I began to take care of my own health and decided that the 6 monthly appointments were now pointless. I stopped attending and became discharged from the cardiac unit.

Years passed with no symptoms. Ignoring advice from family and friends I still didn't go for checkups. In the end it was a girlfriend who issued an ultimatum, almost certainly spurred on by family and friends. Reluctantly I contacted my cardiologist and arranged an appointment. After several tantrums I was sat in the waiting room, seen by the cardiac physiologist, scanned and then given the news. My aortic valve had narrowed a lot over the years; although not quite enough for surgery, enough for me not to be able to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, in fact the consultant actually said if I attempted it I would "expire".

On the night of the Manchester riots I was driving home from dinner with my girlfriend. I felt a bit light headed. When I got home I had immense chest pain and went to A&E where I was told I may have Angina. An ECG and 24hr tape showed a substantial decline, enough to warrant surgery, the words I had dreaded for years. My initial thoughts were not to have it done. Aside from occasional pain, I was fine. I had a great job, great family, active social life, loads of friends and a terrific girlfriend, why rock the boat? My parents and friends advised me, but never "told" me what to do. However, one person in my life gave an ultimatum... my girlfriend, Lisa.

Dates started to come through and I began to ask myself how long could I delay this for. Christmas was approaching, a time I was really looking forward to and feared may be my last…

The inevitable happened and I was given a date, only 10 days away. Fortunately this was cancelled. Two weeks later I was given another, February 14th. Surely that was a bad omen, although think of the money I would save not having to go out for dinner! My girlfriend said to me "if you die on Valentine's day, you'll ruin it for the rest of my life!"

The dreaded day came around, I had packed my bags, said my "farewells". I was taken to the hospital by my parents, following a "last supper" in one of my favourite restaurants. Waiting in the waiting room was horrendous. Due to my having a cold and the lack of beds I had a reprieve... Two more weeks of freedom.

I got a new date. Time for one more quick holiday with my girlfriend!

Given my fear of hospitals, my brother recommended asking our GP for some sedatives. His strict "say no to drugs" policy changed dramatically to "just say yes"... to everything offered.

Sunday morning came and at around noon the dreaded call arrived. Terror struck. I reverted to "I'm fine, I'm not going to have it done". My girlfriend shouted at me, then called her mother and mine. The "three wise women" calmed me down. With my friend Matt, I waited for my brother to pick me up, packing, unpacking, checking stuff again and again, generally avoiding any kind of hospital chatter.

The time came and I began the trip to Manchester Royal Infirmary, one I had done so many times when I was younger. Even now, until I pass a certain point on the A5103 I get concerned I will be taken back!!

Once on the ward, having been given a pot of pills, several staff came along, checked I was me, my blood pressure, allergies etc. My consultant also came along.

Time flew by, my girlfriend arrived, occasionally bursting into tears, I was pretty drugged up so had no fears, or emotion. Following a McDonalds, we popped over to the Intensive Care unit, where more tears ensued, and the staff were absolutely fab, reassuring both of us.

My parents arrived, we chatted as if we were in a hotel. Waving Lisa off from the entrance was a strange feeling as I was unsure if I would ever see her again. The same feeling occurred as I said goodbye to my parents.

I was now by myself. I thought seriously about leaving but had given my money, cards and keys to my girlfriend; either a serious error or the best idea I had ever had!

I fell asleep and was woken up at about 6.30. By the time I had showered my brother had arrived and guarded the doors to ensure I didn't go for one final escape attempt!

After several pills, I felt quite good. Final text messages to Lisa and friends sent.

Andreas, my consultant, popped in, promising he hadn't been drinking the previous night and told me he would see me in half an hour.

My brother left me at the door to theatre, the point of no return had been reached.

I was told exactly what was happening as I was wired up to numerous machines. My final memory is Mr Davidson saying something that made me laugh... Then I woke up in the High Dependency Unit with someone next to me.

The first night went really slowly, however I felt no pain. At 5.30 in the morning I called my girlfriend and by 6am she arrived at the hospital. It was really nice to see a friendly face.

Andreas visited me. He had been there the previous evening and was back first thing. I had a nurse constantly at the bottom of the bed. I still hadn't felt any pain.

In the afternoon I had my chest drains removed which felt like someone pulling a hosepipe out of me. This left just a catheter and some neck lines which were heavy but not uncomfortable.

I slept well for my second night on HDU, the night staff made me feel comfortable and confident.

The following morning my catheter and neck lines were removed. I became aware of my scar for the first time, dressed neatly in the shape of a upside down "T".The physiotherapist came along to see me. I was surprised to be up and about, moving my arms, walking and sitting in chairs. By 2pm that day I was back on the Cardiac ward. I walked over. The next day I was discharged, three days post op and out!!

It is just over four weeks since my operation and I am amazed. I do get a fair amount of chest pain, controlled by medication, over 20 tablets a day! I am still a bit confused and I get tired easily. Before my operation I didn't think I would be going out for lunch, playing with my nieces and nephews, cooking for friends and family and being "Chief Kitchen Cleaner" but I am!!

Although I was utterly distraught about this procedure, probably more so than even those closest to me knew, I am so glad I had it done and so grateful to the staff at MRI, my family, friends and girlfriend.

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