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Peter is breathing easy again after heart valve surgery
heartfoundation.org.au|Helpline 13 11 12

Peter is breathing easy again after heart valve surgery

Peter has lived with a rare heart condition since he was 14, but hadn’t given it too much thought until his 30s.

Peter’s heart story 

“I grew up in South Coogee, an active kid who loved playing most sports including cricket and golf. Coogee beach was my second home. But at aged 14 I was diagnosed with a rare cardiac condition. I didn’t think too much about it as I had it since birth and there weren’t any symptoms or ill-effects through my childhood.

The heart condition I had, which accounts for less than 1 per cent of congenital heart conditions, is called Ebstein anomaly, a malformation of the tricuspid valve, which controls the blood flow between the upper right and lower right chambers of the heart.

My faulty valve meant that my heart had to work harder to pump blood around my body. This wasn’t such an issue when I was first diagnosed because I was young and fit. But as time went by, the symptoms became more pronounced and my heart was getting larger with the struggle to work so hard.

I married my wife Diane at 19 and we have two amazing kids, Luke 28 and Melissa 26. I trained as a chef but moved into a career in government. From an early age, playing sport was my passion. On summer weekends I played club cricket – 314 games – and being the leading run scorer for the club over 25 years was one way to mask my heart valve problem. In winter, I played baseball.

Things began to change when I was about 35. I would become breathless playing with the kids despite little exertion. Running between wickets at cricket or mowing the lawn became more difficult. When I started to struggle for a breath just walking up the stairs from the train station to work one day, I knew something wasn’t right.

Being breathless became such a norm that I had actually forgotten how amazing it felt to just take a healthy breath.

I was diagnosed with a 2:1 atrioventricular block, an electrical problem with my heart and a common sign in someone with Ebstein’s anomaly. I had a pacemaker implanted, a very routine procedure even back then and although I knew I was in good hands, my confidence was affected and I worried about what I could or couldn’t do, sports-wise. I retired from cricket and baseball and pretty much lost motivation to play even the relatively relaxed sport of golf.

When I was 42, I’d been sick for a few days and went to hospital with the dangerously high heart rate of 240 bpm. I was having an episode of ventricular tachycardia (VT), an irregular heartbeat that is symptomatic of Ebstein anomaly. Now, I needed a defibrillator implanted to protect me from this serious arrhythmia.

Once again, I felt I had new limitations and was reluctant to push myself, afraid my heart would work too hard and the defibrillator would go off. You could say I lived life with a handbrake on when it came to exercise or sport. Even golf was too risky in my mind.

Looking back, I realise I’d park the car on the same level as the shop I was going to or make excuses about why I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs. Little by little, all these limitations were compromising my enjoyment of life, although I didn’t know how much until now.

In 2017, the battery in my defibrillator was replaced and I saw a cardiologist who specialised in Ebstein anomaly. It would turn out to be the best, most powerful thing I could do in my life.

A stress test and CT scans showed my heart was dangerously enlarged after 50 years’ hard work. My tricuspid valve was pretty much shot, blood wasn’t flowing properly between the chambers of my heart, which explained why I was coughing so much, breathless from the smallest amount of exercise.

The way I saw it, I was both unlucky and lucky. Unlucky to have a heart condition, but lucky to have lived an active life despite such a serious problem. I was young, just 5, and felt positive, relieved to be having surgery and able to go forward without this huge cloud hanging over me. I had an extraordinary surgeon and was in excellent hands. So in February 2019 I had open heart surgery to replace my damaged tricuspid valve with a tissue valve.

After the operation, one of the most powerful realisations was this: breathlessness had become so normal for me that I had actually forgotten how amazing it felt to just take a healthy breath! I took such joy from simple things others take for granted, like walking around the shops or along a train platform to catch a train.

Having my heart valve replaced has allowed me to reconnect with some of the things I had loved but lost. For instance, I’d always taken my golf clubs on holidays hoping to play a round or two with the kids, but I never had the energy nor the confidence to exert myself.  But I recently played my first golf game in 10 years. The first shot was absolutely terrible, but it still felt amazing. Previously my handicap was my heart, but now, well, it’s just my putting!

I feel I’ve come full circle with my health both with my heart and my head. Never underestimate the impact a healthy, beating heart has on your mind. I’ve lost about 15 kgs, am walking for 40 minutes each day and my goal is to be as fit as I was when I played cricket.

Just as precious to my heart as my family, are my wonderful Cavalier King Charles Spaniels Charlie and Chloe, my little ‘personal trainers’. I’ll never forget how loving and loyal they were when I came home after surgery to recuperate. They are such a powerful force in keeping me motivated to do regular exercise. They could well be my best friends.

Apart from just feeling better and being able to do so much more with my family, the other strong motivation I have to improve my health is the gratitude and commitment I feel I owe to the medical team that got me to this point. You arrive in hospital struggling for breath and you leave being able to breathe with a heart pumping normally, ready to get on with living life without compromise. Staying healthy is my small way of showing how much I appreciate and respect the extraordinary work the medical teams all do. I’m determined to do the right thing by them with my health because they did the right thing by me.”

Peter’s one piece of advice 

“Love and value life. Don’t be complacent or ignorant of your symptoms and have your heart checked. You owe it to yourself and more importantly, your family.”


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