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A heartfelt commitment: Mapping the journey to recovery after three cardiac arrests

Barry and Erin Bradley, of Greytown, are committed to a life that encourages a healthy heart. PHOTOS/HAYLEY GASTMEIER


Hayley Gastmeier


Barry and Erin Bradley take nothing for granted.

They live life to the fullest and in a somewhat spontaneous fashion.

For their 25th wedding anniversary, the Greytown couple ended up in Madagascar after a random point to a map, a permanent fixture on their dining room table.

There are maps, globes, and atlases all over the Bradley home – many are works of Barry.

The 72-year-old is a retired cartographer, whose 50-year career making maps took him all over the world.

These days, Barry takes his guitar and ukulele to entertain oldies at rest homes, and he and Erin enjoy their own little backyard “haven”, made complete with their rescue pets and an aviary that has a chicken raising ducklings.

While holding her hand-reared disabled parrot, Gonzo, Erin says, “we’ve always lived a bit differently”.

Erin, who is 18 years Barry’s junior, retired from her profession as a counsellor four years ago so they could make the most of their time together.

The couple say they have always followed their hearts.

And recent events have seen that statement take on a whole new meaning.

Barry has suffered three cardiac arrests since 2018.

Now he and Erin are committed to managing his heart health and helping others with heart conditions do the same through the Heart Help Group, which is supported by the Heart Foundation.

“In 2017, I was fit, able, had no symptoms of anything,” Barry said.

“Erin and I used to go bike riding everywhere together, and when she got in front of me, I just presumed it was because I was quite a bit older than her and she was young and fit.

“Nothing seemed out of the ordinary – there were no abnormal symptoms.”

In October 2017, he noticed he was wheezing when going to sleep.

“It wouldn’t go away so eventually I went to the doctor, was put on a course of antibiotics, it still wouldn’t go away. I went back to the doctor and was put on another course of antibiotics, and it still wouldn’t go away.

“So, I went back and he said he’d slip me into the nurse’s room and get an ECG [electrocardiogram] done.”

Erin said they were grateful that Greytown doctor Don Simmers “was so on to it”.

He was the first of many “amazing” people they would meet on Barry’s heart journey.

Barry was sent to see a cardiologist at Wairarapa Hospital.

“She came out to me and said, ‘Barry, you’ve got heart failure’. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I couldn’t believe it. I was pretty shattered to know that my heart was in trouble.”

Barry had always been “so fit and active”, Erin said.

His ejection fraction [EF] – a measurement showing how much blood is pumped from the left ventricle with each heartbeat – wasn’t good.

“Normally people pump about 55-70 per cent of the blood that’s in their chamber. I was pumping 10 per cent – only about small percentage of what it should have been.”

Barry went on to find out he had a “badly leaking” aortic valve.

“And I had an enlarged heart because the heart had been working overtime to try and compensate.”

On top of this, Barry had an aortic root that was “twice the diameter it should have been”.

“Had they [medical professionals] not got on to it, I could have had an aortic embolism.

“In other words, my aorta could have exploded, and I probably would have dropped dead.”

June 2018, Barry underwent a Bentall’s procedure, during which his aortic valve was replaced with a pig tissue bioprosthesis.

The night before the operation, Barry and Erin spoke with the surgeon.

“There was a 20 per cent chance I could die on the table,” Barry said.

While he survived, the surgery was not without complication.

What was meant to be about a five-hour operation, turned into a nine-hour ordeal when Barry “bled out”.

He was taken into ICU, and soon after developed postoperative atrial fibrillation, causing an erratic heartbeat.

Two cardiac arrests followed. The first was four days after the operation.

“That required one round of CPR and one shock to get me back and I was two minutes down without breathing.

“Then I had another cardiac arrest. My heart stopped on day seven after the operation. I was awake when I had it, and Erin walked in on it.”

She said she had just arrived at the hospital.

“By the time I got around the corner and into his room, they were working on him and he was calling out because they were pushing on his newly sewn-up chest.”

He required two shocks to get his heart back, and into rhythm.

Seventy at the time, Barry said he was in “a very bad way”.

“I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid of dying. I was just too afraid that if I closed my eyes I would die.”

A nurse noticed Barry’s anxiety and told Erin about an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator [ICD], which was essentially a pacemaker with an inbuilt defibrillator, and one was put into his chest.

Barry took things easily, recovering at home.

Then one night, two months later, his heart started to “race like hell” and he was soon after “thrown out of bed” and on to the floor.

It was later that night that the couple were told Barry’s ICD had shocked his heart back to life, after his third cardiac arrest.

Then doctors discovered Barry had developed Staphylococcal sepsis infection, which was treated by feeding antibiotics directly into his heart for 10 days.

Erin said throughout Barry’s health journey, they gained huge respect for the medical professionals they crossed paths with.

“I reckon that we here in New Zealand are very lucky to have such a great free medical system available to all of us,” Barry said.

He is doing well these days but is taking a lot of medication.

That means he and Erin must manage his health closely.

They proactively reduce the stress and anxiety in their lives using different techniques, and attend the volunteer-led Heart Help Group, which is facilitated by Erin, whose father and grandfather both had heart issues.

She said, for very good reason, people who have had heart issues can experience trauma and anxiety.

“It’s really important to take stress, heartbreak, loss, grief, and trauma very seriously, in terms of not just your overall wellbeing and your mental health, but in terms of your heart.”

Barry encourages people to get annual check-ups from the doctor “because you never know what could be going on”.

According to the Heart Foundation, one New Zealander dies of heart disease every 90 minutes, with heart disease claiming the lives of more than 6300 New Zealanders every year.

The Heart Foundation Big Heart Appeal is this Friday and Saturday, February 21-22 – keep an eye out for volunteers on the street collecting for the charity.

The Heart Help Group meet every third Wednesday of the month at 4pm, at the Wairarapa Community Centre, 41 Perry St, Masterton.

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