Intimacy after a heart event

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Navigating intimacy and sexual relationships can be tough at the best of times. However, if you’re living with a heart condition it can become overwhelming. Find out how Alicia, Mel and Stephen coped on their journey to recovery.

Melanie, 32 years old

Mel was 26-years-old when she started having symptoms. She was eventually diagnosed with a congenital heart defect and dilated right chamber. This came as a big shock. She had 10 months of testing and then open-heart surgery. On top of all this, Mel had just got married.

Mel and her husband Ross

“I wasn’t prepared for the effect open heart surgery would have on sex and intimacy. All the anxiety I was feeling was so focused on the surgery. I wasn’t prepared for my recovery, especially since it wasn’t a typical recovery.

I had intense pain from pleurisy for the first 18 - 24 months post-surgery. I was bed ridden for days when it got bad. To be honest, early on, sex was the last thing from my mind. I guess I was just trying to walk and get through the basic daily tasks of recovery.

After surgery, I was much more in tune with my heart and body. I had anxiety due to all the pain and fear that comes with going through that kind of trauma. I had a high heart rate that resulted from surgery, and I found that having that heightened awareness of this made it difficult to relax and be intimate. When I started to get better and felt more like myself, we resumed sex. The first few times were definitely different. I remember feeling quite anxious the first time and thinking, how was my heart going to go? And my pain? That kind of thought wasn’t just limited to sex. 

What I found helpful was communicating to my partner how I was feeling about it all. It can be quite difficult for them, adjusting to this new normal. Once I started getting stronger and feeling better, being intimate normalised. I would listen to my body and heart and go from there.

Intimacy is a funny one, I felt so close to my partner and my mum during my recovery. They were the ones caring for me around the clock. And with my slow recovery with pain, they helped me with all the basics like showering. 

I am really grateful that I had the close bonds with my partner and family and felt really supported throughout my recovery. I think that’s what really got me through - all the love I felt.” 

Stephen, 45 years old

Stephen has been with his partner Peter for 16 years. Peter now 45, has endured five open heart surgeries between the ages of 13 and 39 years.  Stephen has been Peter’s main source of support for two of those surgeries.  He explains the challenges that come with maintaining intimacy when your partner is recovering.

Stephen and his partner Peter

“The physical side of a relationship stops completely and that continues a long time after surgery as well. But we like to think we are bigger and better than that, it’s not the be-all and end-all of a relationship at the end of the day.

It does take time to reintroduce it again as half the time I am sitting there going I don’t want to touch anything that’s going to hurt or break.  From a physical point of view, even coming home and giving him a hug sometimes hurts.

So, it's important to make sure you communicate and really talk about that stuff”.

Alicia, 33 years old

Alicia was diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fellot – more commonly known as a hole in her heart – when she was three days old.  She had open heart surgery at four years old and then again at 29. After her last surgery Alicia experienced a roller coaster of emotions and spent a lot of time finding the things that made her feel better and more in control physically and mentally.

“I don’t think I was quite prepared for the emotional toll that the surgery would have on intimacy and sex with my partner. I had certainly prepared myself from a physical perspective – I knew what I could and couldn’t do, but what I didn’t expect was to be handled with ‘kid gloves’.

When I had my full heart study prior to surgery (like an angiogram), I was left with a huge bruise just next to my groin, and as a result, my partner at the time didn’t come anywhere near me until it healed. Post-surgery, even though I communicated my physical limitations and capabilities with my partner, he still wasn’t ready to initiate anything that he thought might hurt me.

We experienced a big dip in intimacy overall, which hurt our relationship long term. I don’t think he would have ever attended a support group, but even something like a written resource, would have helped.

I’m pretty in tune with my capabilities now, almost four years post-surgery, and I’m finding that the fitter and stronger I am, the more confident my partners are in my capabilities from an intimacy/sex perspective…but it’s definitely a question I get asked a fair bit when I meet someone new.”

Read more about sex and relationships after a heart event.

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