People shudder at the thought of open heart surgery, but it was on my bucket list

I needed open heart surgery. If I didn't have it, I would die. Scary stuff.

People shudder at the thought of open heart surgery, but it was on my bucket list
Heart beating
My breathlessness wasn’t caused by the covid vaccine or down to my weight like I thought (Picture: Getty Images)

Get shot at by a James Bond villain – tick. Front up a band at Glastonbury – tick. Open heart surgery – tick. Yes, that’s right… having open heart surgery to replace a valve was actually on my bucket list.

Ever since I found out I had severe aortic stenosis – which is when the heart’s aortic valve narrows and blood isn’t able to flow normally – in early 2022, such a procedure went right to the top.

My journey began after having the second Covid jab in the summer of 2021.

I noticed I was becoming more and more short of breath walking up hills. I put that down to being 62, unfit and overweight, wondering also whether the vaccine had any part to play in any of this.

As the year drew to an end, I’d had the Covid booster jab and I was coping with my breathlessness, still thinking I should do more exercise.

Then, I over-indulged on a Christmas dessert and things took a turn for the worse.

Feeling decidely ropey, I went to see a GP convinced I had a lung infection that needed some antibiotics – however things escalated dramatically. She told me to get to A&E that day, adding that I should get someone else to drive me.

After seeing heart doctors, I was booked in for an echocardiogram – an ultrasound test that checks the structure and function of your heart -which confirmed I had severe aortic stenosis.

It also meant I needed open heart surgery. If I didn’t have it, I would die. Scary stuff.

Some months later, a heart consultant booked me in for an angiogram to check whether my arteries would require bypass surgery, which would involve taking a healthy blood vessel from another part of my body and using it to create a new path for my blood to flow around the dodgy one.

If they go in once, they may as well sort it all out at the same time, he told me.

Chris Cowley in his hospital bed
Chris had to have open heart surgery to save his life (Picture: Chris Cowley)

On the day of the angiogram, blood needed to be taken but my veins were not playing ball. Two nurses had had a go before they called over Atilla the Hungarian.

Built like a second-row forward in the All Blacks, Atilla was over from Hungary to learn how we do things in our hospitals. He may have looked like someone you wouldn’t want to meet in a wrestling ring but he was as gentle as they come – and where others failed, he got the job done.

My next consultation revealed good news – the angiogram showed no clogged arteries, so surgery would just require an aortic valve replacement.

It seems simple to say ‘just’ – but it turns out to be a very common procedure these days – around 300,000 people in the UK in 2019 were diagnosed with it, according to a study published in the BMJ journal, Open Heart.

And without treatment, more than half of those would be expected to die within five years.

I was amazed to find out how many friends knew of someone having aortic valves replaced. This was all extremely reassuring. The alternative of leaving things as they were was not an option.

What is aortic stenosis?

Aortic stenosis is when the valve between the lower left heart chamber and the body’s main artery (aorta) narrows and does not open fully, reducing or blocking blood flow from the heart to the rest of the body. It can be, such as in my case, something I have been born with.

What are the symptoms

  • Chest pain brought on by the heart having to work harder
  • Shortness of breath – something I experienced walking up hills
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

Normally, the operation for me would have been done at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth. But clearing the backlog following Covid lockdowns meant it being transferred to The Spire St Anthony’s in Sutton, south London

I was dropped at the hospital by car ambulance from Airside Medical Services, out of Dunkeswell Airfield, near Exeter, whose driver was Jordan Roe-Lavery, a 25-year-old former sniper in the Army who was training to become a paramedic and ambulance driver.

Having achieved marksman status as a teenager in my school cadet force, it was fascinating to hear about all the ins and outs of being a sniper, thereby taking my mind off what was coming my way.

On the day of my surgery, all I remember was being wheeled into a holding area before the operating theatre, talking with Dr Mahmood… and then the very next thing she had metamorphosised into Stan, from West Africa. Was I in another world? No, I was in the ICU ward.

Surgeons performing open heart surgery
Surgeons performing open heart surgery in modern operation room (Picture: Getty Images)

I had had an unfounded fear of waking up mid-procedure so my first words to Stan were: ‘Is it done?’. He replied, soothingly: ‘Yes it is done’.

The sense of relief was overwhelming. All I needed to do now was get better.

The following few nights were hard. No sense of time, in and out of sleep, machines beeping every now and again. One in particular had three beeps which sounded to me like the ‘give you up’ bit of Rick Astley’s 1987 hit Never Gonna Give You Up. Once in my head… it was torture!

But my lowest moment was waking, touching the screen of my phone to reveal it was 3.32am. I nodded off straight away and awoke again, feeling refreshed… only to see that it was now 3.34am! The nights were long.

Still I drew inspiration from my ambulance driver Jordan. As part of his sniper training, he had had to spend six days and nights with two comrades dug in a hole in cramped, uncomfortable conditions on the Brecon Beacons with his sights set on a compound.

If he was spotted – he failed. If he missed recording certain goings on at specific times – he failed. And no trace could be left behind at the end of the week – not even human waste (apparently his Army helmet is very useful in these situations, if you know what I mean).

Medical
The sense of relief after my surgery was overwhelming. All I needed to do now was get better. (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

That was tough. What I was going through was nothing by comparison and I just kept saying to myself: at least I’m not stuck in a hole in the Brecon Beacons. It pulled me through.

On Day 5 post-op, I was finally allowed home. A large bag of medication to see me through and instructions for exercise. Things can only get better.

The worst part of the convalescing period was the healing of the sternum – they have to break it to access the heart. And like any broken bones, it takes time. So coughing or sneezing is not something you want to do for at least eight weeks. That hurts!

Now, as I write this it has been more than nine months. I’m doing fine. I don’t want to go running – so nothing new there. I have the occasional day when I need to slow down and rest if I have over-exerted myself. Other than that, I feel great.

So for all those who fear having this operation… don’t. Sure, it’s scary but the success rate is 98% and not going through with it really ends only one way.

And in case you were wondering about the other two things on my bucket list?

The Pyramid stage at Glastonbury
It wasn’t the pyramid stage but still (Picture: Getty Images)

Well, yes I really did play at Glasto, as the paper I worked for at the time was the media partner for another festival in area.

I was having lunch with the organisers when I asked what it took to put a band on at the main event at Worthy Farm. They went through the processes involved and then, to my utter surprise, said: ‘If you want to play, Chris, we’ll find you a slot.’

I said: ‘I haven’t got a band,’ to which the reply came – ‘Well, get a band’.

And that’s how it came about. I recruited my guitar tutor, an old mate who had played other festivals on bass and a drummer friend of a work colleague.

We thought we would be playing for just a handful of friends but Chris Moyles’s newsreader Dominic Byrne and sidekick Dave Vitty – commonly known as Folk Face on the Radio 1 show at the time – were a surprise addition before us.

As a result, the Jazz Lounge had a few celebrities in there, including Moyles, which a drew a much larger audience than we expected. So, nervously and with no soundcheck, we went on… and 45 minutes later, left the stage with the crowd actually shouting for more!

James Bond Series: A View to a Kill
Christopher Walken (R), as Max Zorin, next to Roger Moore who played James Bond in 1985 movie A View To A Kill (Picture: Oscar Abolafia/TPLP/Getty Images)

As for the Bond villain who shot at me? It was the evil ‘Max Zorin’ from the 1985 movie A View To A Kill, played by Christopher Walken.

Working as a loal reporter at the time, I had been invited to the reopening of the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios after it had burnt down the previous year. We were told we could have a look round – so I wandered off into the stage set, which took up half the giant hangar. As I walked round the corner, I heard ‘Action’ and Walken starts firing off his gun in my general direction.

But after all I’ve been through, I say forget James Bond… call in sniper Jordan – he can take out the bad guys from more than a mile away.

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