Three heartfelt stories of managing heart conditions

The presence of its beat indicates the beginning of life, but keeping it ticking remains our greatest challenge.

Nearly everyone knows someone with a heart condition – many within their immediate family. The most significant muscle in our body is responsible for causing widespread illness and, in a heartbeat, worlds can change. It holds both the key to life and, ultimately, death.

Pharma plays a pivotal role in saving, maintaining and enhancing life for millions of heart patients. Each year companies such as AstraZenica, Novartis, Sanofi and Merck invest billions into research and development as they seek to nullify the impact of cardiovascular disease (CVD), atrial fibrillation (AF), irregular heartbeats, open heart surgery and countless other heart complications.

Let’s hear from three people across the age groups who manage their heart condition
on a daily basis.

Beat box: latest developments in heart treatments

At the European Society of Cardiology 2017 Congress, AstraZeneca presented new data demonstrating a risk reduction in cardiovascular death of 29% in patients taking BRILINTA (ticagrelor).

Novartis treatment, ILARIS (canakinumab), already approved for rare autoimmune conditions, has been found to reduce further heart attacks or strokes, when used with current therapies.

AstraZeneca’s BYDUREON (exenatide) demonstrated fewer cardiovascular events in patients with type 2 diabetes during trials involving nearly 15,000 patients worldwide.

European approval has been granted for Abbott’s XIENCE Sierra, the latest in a series of stents which have become the most commonly used in Europe. Sierra makes it easier for cardiologists to access awkward artery blockages.

Brave heart

Ollie Hardy is 25 and lives in London.

I was named after Oliver Hardy, the larger than life American comic, and when I was little, my mum made me wear a bowler hat. I was also born with a heart condition called aortic stenosis, and they said from an early age that one of my heart valves would eventually have to be replaced. A typical valve is tricuspid in structure, like a Mercedes symbol, but mine was bicuspid, so there was blood regurgitation and it was not flowing as it should.

At 15 I had my first operation and it involved swapping my pulmonary valve with my aortic valve – the ‘Ross Procedure’. They replaced the defective aorta with my own structurally similar pulmonary valve, because the body is less likely to reject its own tissue. I also received a human donor valve in place of the pulmonary valve that had been swapped.

This was supposed to see me through for a while, but last year I found out I needed another operation, as the root of the donor valve was dilating. This can happen in 10% of people that have my original procedure.

I was told it would take place within four months, and that was in November 2016. Due to the current NHS situation, I was on standby until 3 August 2017, when the operation finally happened.

The doctor tells you that no procedure is without its risks. Anyone that says they don’t think about what that could mean is lying. The mortality rate had reduced due to technology – with my first operation it was 5%; 1 in 20, and that was a real shock to me. Now, it was only 2%, but it still preys on your mind. You’re putting your life in the hands of specialists, quite literally.

It’s a strange thing to contend with – you want to see your friends for a few ‘final’ drinks, but know, in all probability, you’ll see them in a matter of weeks.

Despite having to wait so long, the NHS experience at the Queen Hospital in Birmingham was great – the staff were amazing.

When I came around I was pumped full of ketamine and morphine, and by all accounts talking gibberish, but did realise with some satisfaction that I was alive. After that there
was an entire day that I could not account for. Stories were told to relatives and messages were sent to friends that I simply cannot recall.

They had cut along the same old scar, which I was happy about, and after a week I was discharged. Essentially, I went from being a really busy individual, working in London and studying for my Masters, to sitting on my arse doing nothing for two months. My recovery went well, however, and mum encouraged me to do plenty of walking.

Physically, I am almost back to normal now, but psychologically it will take longer. When you’ve been through something like this, you do reflect on your lifestyle choices. At the hospital they told me not to lift any heavy weights, so I’m not going to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger any time soon, but that won’t stop me going to the gym or the occasional music festival.

The company I work for have been great, and offered me a gradual return. I have reached the end of a long tunnel and things are looking up. I am not going to let this situation define who I am. I was given a second chance when I was 15 and now I’ve been given a third; I’m going to take it.

Keeping the beat

Veronica Sexton is 74 and lives in Essex

Whenever I went to the GP surgery I had a very fast heart beat and my pulse rate was up, so the doctor carried out an ECG and I was sent to a cardiac unit for assessment.

They showed my heart on the screen and realised it was AF. I have had it now for five years; it causes a lot of bruising and if I cut myself there is a problem with clotting.

They put me on warfarin to start with, but that required constant testing. The nurse advised me that there were alternatives, which required less frequent tests, and at the beginning I tried several.

The one that really suited me was Apixiban, as it provides me with much more freedom and I don’t need to go to the surgery all the time. The main side-effect is that it’s affected my liver – although the healthcare professionals won’t have it. I don’t drink, so I think it must be the medication, and it even warns about it on the product information! The liver is a bit enlarged, and they are monitoring it, but it doesn’t cause major problems.

Even though I get very tired, and I have arthritis in my knees, I try to keep active. I belong to lots of clubs, attend coffee mornings and dine out. I have an exciting life, but there’s still room for more.

I also have a lovely and supportive family, which has helped me manage my AF and reduce the impact it has on my daily routine. I’d like to travel more, but it’s become more difficult since my husband died. I have, however, arranged a holiday to Torquay with my friends, who are all over 10 years older than me. As you get older, it’s difficult finding friends your own age!

Although I’ve used private healthcare at times during my life, my experiences with the NHS have been fabulous. Unfortunately, it is overrun with time-wasters at the moment, but when they get it right, it’s a wonderful service.

Back to life

Roy Truett is 57 and lives in Crawley

I thought I was just a fairly healthy guy, who liked running. Last year I did the Cancer Research 10k in London and, although I finished it, I was struggling with a chest infection. It didn’t clear, so after some nagging from the Mrs, I went into a walk-in centre expecting to be sent on my way with antibiotics. The doctor checked my heart, however, and wasn’t happy with the rhythm.

They got an ECG on me and it confirmed something was wrong. I was referred for an echocardiogram and got called in to see a cardiology specialist at East Surrey Hospital. He told me I had a leaking aortic heart valve and it would require open heart surgery.

I had to undergo more tests, including having a camera down my throat. During this procedure they said there was a shadow in the aorta area and I would need a CT scan. At this point, although it came back clear, I was starting to think, ‘what’s going on, is this really happening?’

MRIs followed, and I finally got a date for the operation at Bart’s. Tuesday 25 October arrived, and surgery went well. I came around and was recovering; they were happy with my progress and by Thursday I was out of intensive care. During the afternoon, I was waiting to go on another ward, and my wife texted me to say she was on her way. I put my phone on charge, and don’t remember anything after that. I had arrested and had to be brought back using CPR.

Heart attacks usually cause extreme pain, but I had felt nothing and just gone into a deep sleep. The electrical signals to my heart had messed up and the crash team had to open me up for a second time in 48 hours. They checked for internal bleeding and placed me into an induced coma.

My horrified wife and daughter had just walked in while it was all unfolding. They were taken into a room and told that I may have been starved of oxygen, so it could be life-changing.

I was brought round on Friday, with all these faces peering over me. A week later, I had a pacemaker fitted to control the signals. Fortunately, I hadn’t incurred any brain damage, but due to having a mechanical heart, I need to take the anti-coagulant warfarin forever, and I’m also on Ramipril for blood pressure.

With visits from family and friends, in the days afterwards, it all became very emotional, especially for a guy that doesn’t cry. I was realising how circumstances can change in the blink of an eye.

Life is now returning to normality. The specialist had said that before surgery I had been running along the edge of a cliff, but now I’m just happy to be running at all.

Time bomb:

According to the National Survey of Statistics on deaths in England and Wales during 2013, heart disease for men aged 20-34 was the seventh most common reason for death, whereas women in that age group were unaffected. By the age of 50-64 heart disease for men leaps into top position and third place for women. At 65-79 heart disease is still top for men, with at least double the number of fatalities compared to all other conditions, apart from lung cancer. For women in that age group, heart disease is the second biggest killer.