Penny Minney’s Heart Valve Disease Story

Published On: 27 November 2018Categories: Mitral Valve, Patient Stories, Tissue Valve

There is almost nothing that Penny Minney hasn’t done in her 84 years. The former Classics teacher is an avid traveller, author, has sailed the high seas, is an active philanthropist and a lover of swimming, hiking and climbing, not to mention she’s a devoted wife, mother and grandmother. However, she has not accomplished all of this without a few bumps in the road including two mitral valve replacements. But thanks to her treatments, Penny is back to living her full life as she always has – full of energy!

Penny lives with her husband Robin, 86, in Witton Gilbert near Durham where they manage an eight-acre smallholding, keeping bees and providing stabling and livery. They are both founder members of Friends of Witton Dene, a woodland dell of natural beauty lying between their village and the mediaeval church of St Michael and All Angels. The mother of four and former teacher of classics and languages spends much of her time now fund-raising and campaigning for the conservation of her community.

Penny’s heart valve story began when she was teaching classics at the Central High School for Girls in Newcastle. Her mother and brother had had “heart trouble” and her own abnormality was noted after a minor accident on her daily four-mile bicycle ride to and from Durham Station. She realised that she might have the same tendency and her relatives, was checked by a doctor who suspected atrial fibrillation and accepted on-going medication so she could get on with life.

When she eventually retired from teaching in the UK and her four children were grown up, Penny decided she wasn’t yet ready to stop working. So she and Robin moved to Russia, where she was signed up to teach English Literature. “We arrived in Moscow in 1995, and after working a busy schedule for about four years I began to feel unusually odd and unwell. I saw a doctor at the British Embassy who told me I had a heart murmur. He advised a fortnight off work and an annual check-up. He also told me to avoid pressurising myself; I’d been missing lunch most days to get to an extra class.”

Penny followed his advice and the couple spent six more years in Russia before travelling on to Namibia where they both taught for a further two years. Then, one weekend they planned a climbing expedition with their family, however, in the rush to get ready, Penny forgot to pack her medication, “With our family, we decided to climb an extinct volcano to see cave paintings near the summit, and I challenged my ten-year-old grandson to race to the top. He got there first, but I almost passed out, lying flat out, unable to speak or stand up which surprised me. Since then, I’ve taken great care with my medication, at the time thinking that was the sole reason I was so out of breath.”

Some time after this incident Penny was hoping to celebrate her husband’s 70th birthday hiking with him on Namibia’s famous Fish River Canyon trail, but after a thorough medical examination before the hike, she was made aware that she had mitral valve regurgitation, a form of heart valve disease, and was told she would eventually have to have a replacement valve which stopped her from going.

Fortunately, the couple were due to return to the UK, where Penny was referred to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. She vividly remembers her consultation with Mr John Dark. “He said: ‘I gather that last year you were refused for the five-day walk in the Fish River Canyon. What was that about?’ I suppose he was probing to see if I was a sedentary sort of person, or fit enough to make a good recovery. He said I needed a new valve – and it might take time to find, as it needed to be a large one. His honest approach gave me courage.”

In 2006, Penny was given a replacement tissue valve which restored her vitality, enabling her to to make a successful business on the smallholding they now called home in Witton Gilbert with her husband. She also became a trustee of a local charity based in the medieval church of St Michael, and helped them raise £150,000 to fund a new church roof. As if that wasn’t enough, she began researching and writing her first book.

In early 2017, at the age of 83, she noticed that only a short time previously she could swim sixteen lengths, but could now only swim half that. Not wanting to slow down again, she paid a visit to her doctor where she was told that another mitral valve replacement was needed, and that her tricuspid valve was also leaking heavily. Her chief concern was that she might be denied surgery because of her age. “I urged my doctors not to give up on me and thankfully a new technique had been developed which avoided the risk of repeating open heart surgery by using a minimally invasive technique and inserting the valve between my ribs.”

After the operation, Penny recovered well apart from being very disorientated for the first two weeks. “It took five months to recover my confidence and I couldn’t have managed without the help of my sons and my husband.”

She is now back to her busy and fulfilling life, doing her regular maintenance work on their smallholding and keeping up with her gardening, she is also is delighted that her book, Crab’s Odyssey, was published just before her second surgery in December 2017 (Taniwha Press).

“It’s our story of four wonderful summers, long ago, when we were students. We bought an open 17 foot ship’s lifeboat in Valetta and sailed her from Malta to Sicily, around the heel of Italy, to Greece and even to the Bosphorus.”

What an amazing story and we’re so glad to hear you’re doing well!

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