Left alone, I would have died of heart failure


There are a set of photographs in the family album that have the power to really unsettle me.

They were taken when I was a small baby, a few days before I went under the knife at Southampton General Hospital for surgery to repair a birth defect in my heart.

My mum wanted pictures of her son without a big scar across his side. She also believed it might be her last chance to take any pictures of me. I had a coarctation of the aorta – a narrowing of the largest artery in the body, like a kink in a hose.

Left alone, it’s likely I would have died of heart failure before long. But thankfully, this was in 1988, and my chances of survival were reasonably high.

The surgeons went in, cut out the kink in the hose, and sewed the two ends back together. Within weeks, I am told, I transformed from a singularly miserable baby into an ordinary, happy child.

I was lucky enough to be born into the first generation of people that had a good chance of surviving congenital heart disease.

The progress in anatomical, surgical and imaging techniques – that meant I survived, while children born only a decade or so earlier often didn’t – has continued unabated, to the point where we can now celebrate an 83 per cent drop in the number of children dying of this disease over the past 30 years.

That all this has been done by the NHS, with the support of charities like the British Heart Foundation, is testament to what can be achieved when public will is matched with scientific genius.

Increasingly the experts say things could get even better with services focused at fewer, highly specialised centres – and this is a nettle that the Government will soon have to grasp.