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From diagnosis at 37 to heart surgery, rehab and now
heartfoundation.org.au|Helpline 13 11 12

From diagnosis at 37 to heart surgery, rehab and now

Claude Lam, Open heart surgery survivor

7 min read

I’ve worked in the energy industry for over 13 years. My wife and I are blessed with a bubbly and cheeky three year old daughter, and are expecting another addition to the family in about six months! Life is pretty amazing, but it wasn’t always so bright.

Many people aren’t aware that I am also a survivor of open heart surgery. A little over a year ago, at age 37, I was diagnosed with heart disease. In fact, it was so severe that two of my arteries were found to be up to 90% blocked. The diagnosis was tough and it was only through pure luck, or a blessing as I view it, that I did not have a heart attack.

Being in my thirties, I thought I was bullet-proof and all the usual lifestyle indicators or what the doctors call ‘risk factors’ of heart disease were not present. Overweight? No. Smoker? No. Diabetic? No. High Cholesterol? No. High Blood Pressure? No. Drinker? No. Sedentary life? No. In fact, physical activity had always been a part of my life. I believed in the ‘no pain, no gain’ concept and four weeks prior to my diagnosis I had participated in a mini triathlon.

So how did I find out I had heart disease? And what was my reaction? It happened on any normal day. I was driving home from work on the freeway and lost consciousness at the wheel. My recollection is a little fuzzy. One moment I was driving and the next I was waking up in an ambulance not knowing how I got there.

How I didn’t injure myself in the car crash or kill others was simply amazing. I was utterly confused and completely scared. I was sent to the local emergency department.  The medics and doctors thought I had either suffered a seizure, had an epileptic episode or fell asleep at the wheel. After a very long one and a half months of hospital visits, scans and tests, they eliminated any neurological problems (great!) but found I had accelerated heart disease and was at high risk of a cardiac event at any moment. Yep, at age 37.

Everybody deals with challenges in life and we all have different reactions and coping mechanisms, but I had never had to deal with news of this magnitude and, at my age, it was the last thing on my mind. After all, I thought it was an ‘old’ person’s disease!

What I have learnt from the medical profession is that nothing is 100% certain and everything carries some risk. In my case it was clear that doing nothing carried the greatest risk and was not an option.

The doctors and specialists were surprisingly divided in which treatment they recommended. This made it extremely difficult for me to decide which option to take next.

Do I have minor surgery (which was stenting) or major surgery - that is cut my chest open and have a heart operation?

Choosing which path to take was one of the most difficult moments. I consoled in my wife, spoke at length to close friends, researched online and often found myself staring into space thinking about my life and silently panicking. I also sought second and third medical opinions; something I strongly recommend to everyone faced with a life-threatening prognosis if there is time. I also learnt that it is common for medical practitioners to seek more than one opinion before proceeding with their own personal medical intervention. That in itself says a lot! What was pretty clear to me was I HAD to make a decision, and SOON, and any further delays were putting my life at risk.

A very candid and personal conversation with my now cardiologist provided me with just the right incentive. Open heart double bypass surgery would give me the best chance of long term survival. Yes, there was a 5% chance of death, yes it would be a very long and potentially painful three months of recovery, and yes I would have a massive scar on my chest for the rest of my life - but heck, I wanted to be around to see my daughter grow up.

Long story short, I chose open heart surgery and my advice to others is to listen to your intuition, as well as the facts, data and medical advice.

From that moment, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. After saying yes to surgery, I was scheduled for an operation in two days’ time. I went private and the cardiothoracic surgeon who I had met with a week prior and had an instant “connection” with would be performing the operation.

I vividly remember the night before my admission. I said goodbye to mum and dad and my then two year old daughter. I held back my tears as the thoughts of ‘will I ever get to see them again’ played in my mind. My eyes welled up with tears as I left in the car for hospital. It was terrifying.

The surgery was a success and given my age and level of fitness, my recovery was quick. I was coined the ‘poster-boy’ of cardiac surgery in the ward. Mind you everyone else was 20 to 40 years older than me! I took three months off work for my rehab and as much as it was physical, it was also a process of mental rehabilitation.

Unfortunately the cardiac rehabilitation process offered to me was abysmal so I took it upon myself to take charge. This meant booking regular appointments to see my GP. Previously I only visited the GP for the common cold or flu. Now I have a family GP; one that knows my complete history and who I will have a relationship with for the rest of my life.

Rehabilitation meant following a self-imposed exercise program (albeit very slowly – I was on my trainer bike after two weeks and walking every day). Who knew walking could be so much fun!

I saw a dietitian to get tips on better eating and I had several sessions with a mental health expert. As my physical strength and personal confidence built, I found a strong urge to reach out and find others who were also living with a heart condition. Through the Heart Foundation I connected to other young adults and also offered my time for volunteering.

One year later and I have pretty much resumed all of my previous physical activities. I no longer push myself to the absolute limits. Not because I can’t, but mainly because I can and therefore really enjoy and absorb the experience. I now practise yoga twice a week, and importantly for me I found a connection back with God and feel at home with a Church that was introduced to me by my sister-in-law. The balance between the body (physical) and mind (emotional) is important to me and I’m still trying to achieve that balance. My diet has completely changed and my relationships with my family and friends now take on a more meaningful tune.

The healing comes with time and I am embracing it as who I am now. The physical scar on my chest acts as daily reminder of my vulnerability, but also a reminder of my strength. I still have moments of self-doubt or anxiousness, but I think that is natural. In a world where there are so many people facing far worse conditions or health issues, I can say I feel truly blessed to have gone through this entire process.

Hindsight of course always brings clarity. While there is no guarantee I won’t require surgery again, I’m happy that I have managed to remain positive, ridden the lows and highs, and continue to remind myself that I can only control what I can control.

My outlook on life is definitely more positive and I am learning to enjoy the simple moments as much as possible. From diagnosis, to surgery and then rehab, the journey still continues and it is my beautiful wife, family, close friends and my faith that has gotten me through it all.

I don’t believe heart disease at my age should define who I am or restrict how I think or feel. I have many things to look forward to, one of which is a new baby. I hope by sharing my story with others who are going through a similar experience, they can take some comfort that life does not stop at diagnosis.  Yes it’s a BIG change. But depending on how you choose to view it, life becomes more precious and magnificent.

P.S I eventually found out that there is a strong history of heart disease on my Dad’s side, so I believe genetics was a huge factor in my condition.

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