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27th January 2016

Out of breath? It may not be your lungs

Mike Higginbottom blamed his struggles with exercise on being unfit…until his heart stopped beating one day at the gym.

“Apparently I pirouetted off the cross trainer, fell on my back and hit my head. I was out like a light,” he tells This Is Medtech, adding that he was given a 3% chance of survival at the time. This was how Mike discovered he had aortic stenosis, also known as a “sticky heart valve” that affects the flow of blood through the heart.

In the months leading up to his cardiac arrest, Mike had noticed that exercising was becoming increasingly difficult. Thinking his fitness level must be declining, he’d decided to exercise even more, “which is of course the last thing you should do if you have a cardiac problem,” he notes. He’d been to the doctor, who had listened to his lungs (but not his heart) and given him antibiotics for bronchitis.

Early diagnosis can save lives

Although heart valve disease affects over one million people in the UK, it’s often overlooked, says the UK charity Heart Valve Voice. Because sticky heart valve is particularly prevalent among those over 65, people frequently put their symptoms down to the natural ageing process.

Others may think it’s a respiratory problem. “People think they’ve got bronchitis or asthma, and if the GP doesn’t pick it up, they’re in big trouble. That was very much my situation,” says Mike, who helps Heart Valve Voice to raise awareness amongst both patients and healthcare professionals.

“Doctors need to be checking with a stethoscope. It may be seen as old technology, but it can pick up a possible valve issue so that other tests can be done,” he adds. It’s a treatable condition if diagnosed early enough.

Mike credits the gym’s fast-acting staff for saving his life. They used a portable defibrillator to deliver an electrical current to his heart via two hand-sized paddles. “That got my heart going again until the paramedics arrived,” he says.

He was rushed to Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, where doctors identified the valve problem using an echocardiogram, which allowed them to look at images of his heart on a screen in real time.  “Basically the valve wasn’t opening to let the blood through, so the opening through which the blood was trying to get was very narrow,” Mike explains. This required open-heart surgery to replace the faulty valve with an artificial one, giving him a new lease of life.

A year later, Mike was back in the gym.

Photo credit: © James Meakin