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Heart Health Month: What My Hole In the Heart Taught Me About My Body

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I'm 33, and like a lot of people my age or younger, I don't tend to think of my heart as something that needs much looking after. It sits in its rib cage, it works perfectly fine, and I haven't had much complaint from it.

In fact, considering how much partying I've done in my younger years, I almost think I'm invincible.

I'm also the type of person who has always been active: hill climbing and tennis lessons as a kid, trekking the Himalayas and always up for an adventure as an adult.

So it came as a huge shock to find out 18 months ago, when I could no longer catch my breath while running on a treadmill, that I had a hole in my heart - about an inch across in fact - that apparently, I've had since birth.

I was very lucky in that my dad is a GP and when I told him about my symptoms, he dismissed my doctor's diagnosis of 'oh, it's just a virus' and frogmarched me to A&E.

I was furious. And embarrassed. Here I was, stomping my way into St Thomas' A&E when I needed to be at work, flanked by my parents like an overgrown baby. I kept practicing the perfect tone and delivery of saying: "I told you so!" to my dad.

But I didn't get to say it, in fact, I spent many months afterwards thanking my dad for saving my life - it may have ended in a stroke or clot if undetected - and I still never get tired of saying it.

My mother had a hole in the heart, but her story was a lot different from mine. After the age of six she couldn't climb stairs without getting breathless, and she was one of the first people to have the surgery to fix it - a memento of her survival, which she carries everyday, are the deep scars she bears down the centre of her chest where she was cut open.

I was such a healthy baby that there was little doubt that I'd escaped the condition. But when I mentioned to the on-call doctor about my mother's condition, her brow furrowed and I was strapped to an ECG machine.

After this, I was told that I'd have an echocardiogram, but I still didn't gather that anything was wrong. In fact, I bobbed along the corridor on the way to the room with a smile because I was fine, of course I was fine.

But then something happened that - regardless of what my diagnosis would have been - put me in touch with my mortality, made me appreciate my body for what it does.

It was the sound of my heart talking to me through the echo.

Something happened in that moment when I could hear its whooshing and swishing, and I thought 'my god, that's my heart!' That amazing, wonderful thing has been hidden from sight all along, has always been there, pumping gallons of my blood around, keeping me alive.

On the screen I saw its colours, the sweeping movements, the reassuring thud, and when I finally found out what was wrong with me, that heartbeat was most beautiful sound I'd ever heard.

"Just keep going," I said (in my head, otherwise the doctor would've thought I was nuts), "just keep going and do that wonderful thing you do."

I was very lucky - much luckier than my mother. When they told me the news, I burst into tears, not just because I was scared but because I thought it would mean carving my chest open like they had done with my mum.

But no, I was told, things had moved on since then. Thanks to the research done by charities like the British Heart Foundation and other medical organisations, a procedure that once took a week's stay in the hospital and three months recovery now was non-invasive, involved a night's stay and used robotics.

After the surgery, I got better very quickly.

There were lots of questions around why something so big hadn't been detected earlier, and that's just because the right hand side of the heart had managed to deal with it as long as it could, and then just reached a point where it couldn't handle it.

It made me think though.

There is so much that we take for granted when it comes to our bodies. If nothing has ever gone wrong with it, then we assume that it never will. And when the inevitable does happen, you have to choose how to deal with it.

For me, it's the start of a new love affair with my body. I am impressed it got me this far without complaining, I think it is amazing that it has already gone back to normal (albeit with a disc of stainless steel now deeply embedded in my heart).

Am I sorry it happened? No. Because it makes me not take things for granted anymore. The first time I could swim without feeling breathless, I almost started crying (happy tears) in the pool because I was so grateful to be able to feel like that again.

It has also made me think how crazy it is, the relationship between our mind and our body.

It's like some dysfunctional family that doesn't quite know how to communicate. There's your body - your heart, brain, liver and lungs - working to the max to keep you alive and healthy, and all it needs is a bit of maintenance. And there we are, not really bothering to exercise or eat properly because we think we don't need to.

Considering how much of heart disease is preventable - from our choices around smoking, drinking, exercising and eating - this is the month I'd urge you to do a stock take of your life.

I realise that a congenital heart defect is not the same as heart disease, but it has given me a new outlook on how I do approach my heart health for the next few decades. And having seen how precious it is, and what a big job it does, I'm going to help it beat for as long and as hard as it possibly can.

Please share this blog to raise awareness, and visit the British Heart Foundation website to find out more about their campaign, Ramp Up The Red.

Around the Web

What Are Holes in the Heart? - NHLBI, NIH

A ventricular septal defect (VSD) - Adult Congenital Heart Association

Bret Michaels' Stroke Tied to Hole in Heart - ABC News

New gene discovery for babies born with hole in the heart ...

Congenital heart defects in children Definition - Diseases - Mayo Clinic

16 Philip Seymour Hoffman Movies To Fill The Hole In Your Heart

To fix holes in infants' hearts, scientists make glue like worms

New superglue fixes holes in the heart

Girl born with hole in heart raises money to fight disease

Day care teacher accused of abusing hole in heart boy

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