How open heart surgery changed my life

Michelle Hampton was a healthy, active 37-year-old running a busy marketing agency in Sydney. Until she suddenly, and very unexpectedly, needed open heart surgery.

She’s hoping that sharing her story will encourage other women to check their heart health and bring awareness to the Heart Foundation’s June Campaign, Making the Invisible Visible.

Finding out you need lifesaving surgery in your 30s can only be described as utterly terrifying.

There’s no way around it, no real way to prepare for the news. And that stunning realisation you have no control over what happens can really test your mental resilience. 

There were times it was all just too overwhelming. Too scary. Too much. But, for me, trying to approach the situation with an attitude of preparedness and surrender made the difference between staying in a state of terror and seeing it as a situation that can change your life for the better.

My Diagnosis

In December 2016, I found out I had a broken heart. Not the metaphorical kind…the real kind.

The scary thing was my symptoms were minor and common. I often had mild breathlessness, dizziness and a few heart palpitations, I just thought I was feeling stressed and rundown.

It all came to a head when I started to feel severe heart palpitations and took myself to hospital. I knew something was wrong.

I was told I had a hole, the size of a ten cent piece, between the two chambers of my heart and some, apparently, super important veins that were literally on the wrong side.

I’d had the congenital defect since birth and was told it was called a Sinus Venosus Atrial Septal Defect (SV ASD) with partial anomalous pulmonary venous drainage (PAPVD). It took me a few weeks to even get the terminology right!

After lots of tests I was told that the right side of my heart was getting almost three times the volume of blood it needed and, given the hole was between the two chambers, the ‘blue’ and ‘red’ blood were mixing, meaning my heart had to work extra hard all the time to make sure I was getting enough oxygen.

I still can’t believe it had been functioning like this for 37 years and my twin sister didn't develop any heart health problems, despite the fact we are genetically identical.

My MRI scan showed my right ventricle was severely dilated - 2.7 times the size it should be. Because my heart was so large, it would unlikely return entirely back to its normal size after intervention.

Preparing for surgery

Although I feel differently about it now, the day I found out about my congenital heart defect was the worst day of my life. I was monumentally underprepared for the news, although I’m not sure you could ever be prepared for news like that.

My specialists explained the only way to fix the defect was surgically and that I would have to have open heart surgery. Open. Heart. Surgery.

And I had no choice in the matter. I was told I’d suffer from heart failure by the age of 45 and irreversible damage within a few months if I did nothing.

Michelle with Professor Chard who performed her surgery.

Apart from the immense shock, after living with invisible symptoms for 37 years, the hardest thing to get my head around was that fact that they would need to stop my heart to operate on it.

Facing a big challenge like this meant I needed to up my mental resilience. It was hard. I had to pick myself up and start planning for surgery. At this point, I went through several stages of grief.

Denial hit. At first I thought maybe they mixed up my MRI and ECG results with someone else.

Then anger hit. I became frustrated that we hadn’t detected it earlier and that I had a disease that wasn’t my doing. I began bargaining. I started negotiating my way into getting my surgery done as early as possible (this one actually worked!).

I felt depressed and started feeling pretty down, especially about the long recovery time of 6 months. Then I felt acceptance. I learned how to be calm, prepared and surrender to the situation.

My surgery and recovery

I was in hospital for seven days and six nights which included two nights in ICU. Everyone’s experience in ICU is different.  Some people stay in for several days and remain fairly unconscious while their vitals are stabilising. I was lucky enough to wake up only a few hours after my surgery. 

As I was waking up, my doctors explained to my family that once they’d closed the hole in my heart and started it back up again, they could visibly see my heart shrinking back to a more reasonable size – incredible stuff.

Recovering in ICU and in the cardiology ward.

They explained the surgery went well which included a fairly non-traditional incision approach. The heart surgery itself was conventional but making the incision under by breasts meant a far better cosmetic outcome.

Life in the cardiology ward was much calmer and this is where I started focussing on my recovery. Having my first shower after four days was heaven.  I had been living in a hospital gown and was feeling pretty dirty and dreadful. Once out of the shower, my sister blow-dried my hair and for the first time in four days, I was feeling slightly human again.

Little by little, I improved and started see there is a positive end to a long recovery. 

Four months on

I am now two months’ shy of making a full recovery, and I’m feeling really good! The pain has almost gone, I feel positive about the future, I’ve started doing yoga again once a week, and slowly increasing cardio exercise. I’m back at work on light duties and life is starting to feel normal again.

Michelle with her twin sister Angela and doing cardiac rehab at RPAH.

My heart has shrunk back to within a normal range too – something my specialists didn’t think would happen. Luckily for me, my condition could be fixed with surgery, and it’s unlikely I’ll need to be on medication long term which I’m so incredibly grateful for. 

As cliché as it sounds, having open heart surgery not only saved my life, it changed it for the better. I see life differently now. I don’t get so bogged down in the drama and I appreciate things so much more.  I wouldn’t ever change what happened to me – it was truly a blessing in disguise.

Help Lifestyle raise $10,000 for the Heart Foundation here.

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