James McElwee: My Second Valve Replacement Story

Published On: 3 October 2016Categories: Aortic Valve, Open Heart Surgery, Patient Stories, Tissue Valve

​James McElwee, from King’s Health, is a retired Printer and Voluntary International Rescue worker. In 2004, aged 60, he underwent valve replacement surgery for aortic stenosis and in 2015 had his aortic valve replaced again. He has written this account to help more people to become aware of this condition, and help reassure valve disease patients of the positive outcomes of treatment.

I remember my initial diagnosis very vividly. I was on a night navigational exercise with IRC training some new recruits. It was a 20 kilometre night walk across the Southern Downs. I began feeling light-headed and suddenly fainted. When I woke-up, I convinced the recruits I was well enough to continue, so I continued with the walk. Back at the camp, I knew I wasn’t feeling right so I asked my colleagues to take over and I went home.

My wife was very concerned about me and arranged for me to see our local GP first thing the following Monday. The GP listened to my heart with a stethoscope and thought it didn’t sound quite right, so I was referred to Dr Steads, a heart specialist in Birmingham. At the appointment, I underwent several heart tests including an ECG. The tests revealed that my aortic valve was disintegrating and the doctor said that I would need valve replacement surgery urgently. I was in complete shock when he gave me the diagnosis of heart valve disease. I was alone at the appointment and I went into a state of disbelief. I have no family history of heart disease that I am aware of, but I have had a heart murmur since birth. However, the surgeon could not believe how I had reached the age of 60 without any heart problems. Now I was suddenly facing surgery for a condition I had never heard of.

My operation happened quite soon after the initial diagnosis. I underwent aortic valve replacement surgery with Dr Steads (Consultant) and Mr Stephen Rooney (Surgeon). I was given a tissue replacement valve. It all happened quite quickly and I was in hospital for fourteen days before I returned home to continue my recovery. I only realised how ill I had been once I began to recover. The symptoms had crept up on me without me realising. Sadly, I couldn’t go back to work after my operation as it was just too much for me. However, I was symptom-free for 10 years and enjoyed an active lifestyle.

Last year, I went back to see Dr Steads my heart specialist as I had begun to feel unwell again. I had been feeling bad for a few months but wasn’t really sure of the reason. Dr Steads did some tests and confirmed that my valve would need to be replaced again. So in November 2015, I underwent a second valve replacement operation. The operation was again successful and was home from hospital within a week, which was wonderful.

Second time around, I felt the benefits from the surgery almost immediately. Again, I recovered fairly quickly and within weeks noticed an improved quality of life. I felt much better in myself and was able to lead an active life again quite quickly. My symptoms have disappeared and I am back to enjoying my retirement to the full. I attended a heart rehabilitation clinic and I think this has helped me to remain active. I enjoy swimming, walking and take part in ballroom dancing three times a week. I’m very glad that I can continue to do all these activities with my wife and friends.

I hadn’t heard of heart valve disease before my diagnosis so I wasn’t really sure what the condition was. However, once I had read the literature provided by the patient group which gave a lot of detail, I felt relieved that there were treatments available. My advice to others who are diagnosed with heart valve disease is that whilst it might be very scary and something to be concerned about, don’t be too afraid as there are solutions available.

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