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Discovering You Have A Heart Defect

Life deals us all sorts of shitty cards, and the one Guy got dealt was a heart defect. At the age of 29, Guy Heywood went from being ‘normal healthy young dude’, to ‘heart operation emergency’. Bonnie Friend spoke to him about slowing down, mental fitness and writing his story

How did you find out about your heart defect?

I had been training for my first white collar boxing match and I noticed my health was deteriorating instead of improving through the training. During this period I also had some very obvious sharp pain to the chest that prompted me to see my local GP. Noticing something wasn’t right, she sent me for a series of tests that went on for about four months before I was seen by a surgeon. He explained that I had a part missing from the valve in my heart and I needed open heart surgery in the very near future. As he put it: “you know how you hear about young people dropping down dead suddenly? This is why.” That really brought it home.

What impact did that diagnosis have on your life at the time?

It actually came as a little bit of a relief because it was an answer to why I had been feeling so bad. It also made me realise a lot of things about my life to date; why I had always been tired, why I had felt out of breath and would inhale deep sharp breaths a lot – it was because of this heart defect I had been born with. So on a physical level I had to slow down a lot, which I had done already out of necessity but the diagnosis really meant there was no other option. To put that into context, before my GP appointment I was commuting around London on my bicycle, I had been training for boxing at least five times a week, and I was also doing sprint training once a week.

What has been the long term impact?

Actually, I feel better about myself; I’ve been able to reflect on many things and take a sidestep from the life I was living and focus on feeling well and good. I am now in the best shape of my life and I can really feel it.

What effect did it have on your mental wellbeing at the time and how did you handle it?

My mental outlook became a lot more about an imminent future rather than a long term one, and that actually helped to still my mind. In turn that brought a lot of clarity and focus. I felt mentally very strong throughout the whole period, and I think a lot of that was down to self-reflection, meditation and a general sense of acceptance of what was happening. Of course that’s something that came over time as the diagnosis became more and more clear. Early on, when I had the first sharp pains in my chest and moments of feeling like I wanted to black out, I knew something was seriously wrong but I ignored it and distracted myself rather than facing the reality of it. I think on reflection I knew it was something that was serious and had always been there.

Were the people around you supportive?

My immediate family and friends were very supportive in their own ways but I think they all handled it internally and didn’t show me a lot of their emotions. I know they were all finding it hard, facing the very real prospect of losing me. That was something I struggled with knowing that the interaction I was having with people was being kept at surface level for my perceived benefit. I remember thinking that I would rather they screamed or shouted or cried instead of keeping their emotions closed off from me.

What was the most difficult thing about the time leading up to the operation?

I had to make a decision about the type of valve replacement I was due to have. I needed to choose between a mechanical valve or a tissue valve, and there was no straightforward answer to either option. The mechanical valve increased quantity of life, while the tissue valve increased quality of life. It was all based on what life would be like after the operation, which obviously I had no way of knowing, and, adding to the complexity of the choice, I found that there was little information around for someone my age having this kind of operation as most people were a lot older than me, so I struggled to relate.

What has been the hardest thing since?

The recovery period, both emotionally and physically, which took the best part of a year. I was physically restricted for around three months, having to sleep on my back to allow the chest to heal, and there were a lot of other physical restrictions that went with it, not lifting my arms for example – showering was very difficult. On an emotional level, I don’t think it was until after I had my first year scan and knew that everything was ok that I really let everything go and was able to accept the new life I had in front of me.

What advice do you have for anyone going through a similar physical experience at the moment?

Any advice is dependent on the person’s circumstances, but in a general sense I would try to have as much time for self-reflection as possible without being disturbed; try and block out the noise in that sense and think about what’s right for you. Find out as much as possible about what’s happening physically and emotionally so that you can be at peace with your options if you have any, or simply with the situation as it is if you don’t have choices.

What are you doing now?

I have recently come back from a seven week break where I travelled to Australia, Thailand and Cambodia to visit friends, explore, get away from everything I knew, and have a real break to give me time to think. I realised I couldn’t make a clear decision about the future I wanted to make for myself while I was in my job because it was too mentally consuming, so I left to get some clarity about the direction I wanted my life to go in. This has helped confirm a choice I made some time ago that I wanted to share my experience to help provide support to anyone who may need it, so that’s what I’m doing.

What are you going to do next?

I have set up a blog, which is an honest account of the six months prior to the operation, the crazy events during that period and the recovery time afterwards. I am continually adding to it to show how the story progresses with the choices I made for the operation now being a living reality.

I felt at the time that there wasn’t enough support on all levels, and there were questions for which I couldn’t get answers. Now I am hoping that by sharing my story it will help people with difficult decisions to make or anyone who’s going through a hard time, to find clarification. I believe the more information that’s out there and the more research people can do, the more it will benefit everyone to be able to think for themselves. It all comes down to personal choices, which you are at complete liberty to make.

Read Guy’s blog at wearefreetochoose.com and follow his story on Facebook facebook.com/wearefreetochoose and Twitter @_FreeToChoose.

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