The NI man whose life was saved thanks to heart surgery... and the mum with a family history of cardiac issues who captured his joy at being restored to health in a series of feelgood photographs
Maurice Whitten, from Bangor, wasn’t expected to survive, but happily his cardiologist managed to repair a damaged valve. He tells Leona O’Neill how he hopes Rostrevor photographer Karen Clerkin’s wonderful images of him enjoying life again will inspire others battling ill health.
Maurice Whitten (76), retired from the Department of Education, had his life saved by pioneering heart valve replacement surgery. Meanwhile, 60 miles away in Rostrevor, 36-year-old photographer Karen Clerkin had her interest sparked in a photography competition because of a family history of a heart condition.
Karen, a wedding and family photographer, entered the Heart Valve Voice, in collaboration with The Royal Photographic Society competition, and won the Northern Ireland heat. She was then paired with Maurice to capture his joy over a second chance at life and was elevated to the national competition.
The pictures with which she emerged truly caught the essence of a life lived to the full for a man who wasn’t expected to live at all.
“I had a triple bypass and an aortic valve replaced in February 2004 at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital in London,” said Maurice, from Bangor. “I was told at the time that the valve would probably last about 12 years. And that was spot on, because I had to have the valve replaced then in February of 2016.
“Back in 2004, I was having chest pains and difficulty breathing. I had been attending the Ulster Hospital and getting it checked out. At that time, as there is now, there was a huge backlog of people having to have heart surgery. The Department of Health were sending people all over the place to have their surgery. I was sent to London. I was quite happy to go anywhere.”
But almost exactly 12 years later, the valve needed to be replaced.
“I was suffering breathlessness again, I was having difficulty laying flat, I had to sit up on the edge of the bed to get a breath at night. On New Year’s Eve in 2015, I had gone down to the local shop to get the paper and had some difficulty getting home. I went right away to the doctor and she sent me straight to hospital. Unfortunately, I was in hospital from New Year’s Eve until I got out on Good Friday, 2016,” Maurice said.
“I lost a couple of stone in weight and developed pneumonia. The cardiology team weren’t going to proceed with the heart valve replacement because my condition was so bad. At the time, my wife Valerie was told to send for our two daughters, that I wasn’t going to make it and there was nothing they could do for me.
“But the cardiologist, Dr Spence, decided that he would go ahead and I am certainly thankful to him that he did. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.”
Maurice says the operation made the world of difference to him and he is thankful to his surgeon for saving his life.
“The operation itself was quite different to the first one I had,” he said.
“It was a transcatheter aortic valve implantation (TAVI) operation, a minimally invasive surgical procedure which repairs the valve without removing the old, damaged valve. Instead, it wedges a replacement valve into the aortic valve’s place. The beauty of that was that I didn’t have to have open heart surgery and it could be done through the groin. I spent about a week in intensive care and a further few weeks in hospital and got out just before Easter.
“The operation has made a big difference in my life. I am able to resume my interests as they were before. I play a bit of golf, indoor bowls and I enjoy gardening. I have two daughters — one in Glasgow and the other in Manchester — as well as two granddaughters. So I am able to enjoy my family, which I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. This operation saved my life. And I can’t speak highly enough of Dr Spence at the Royal, because he is the man who I owe my life to.”
Heart valve disease is the name given to any malfunction or abnormality of one or more of the heart’s four valves, affecting the blood flow through the heart. The condition is usually caused by wear, disease or damage of the heart valve.
Commonly reported signs and symptoms of heart valve disease include shortness of breath on exertion, chest tightness and/or pain, palpitations, fatigue, dizziness and fainting. However, many patients do not suffer severe or visible symptoms, or put their symptoms down to the natural ageing process, making diagnosis difficult. Maurice says he took part in the photo competition to raise awareness of the condition and to show people there is life after the operation and light at the end of tunnel.
“The photography competition was part of the process of raising awareness of heart valve disease,” he said.
“We didn’t win the UK-wide part of the competition, but that is neither here nor there. We weren’t interested in winning, it raised awareness for other people who might not have been aware of the condition.
“I would 100% recommend the procedure to anyone with heart valve disease. Some people are afraid, particularly if they are of older age, of having open heart surgery. And this is another process that doesn’t require that and is less severe on them. That would obviously have to be assessed by a medical professional, whether it would be suitable or not.
“But this operation has given me back my life. Considering what I went through, it really is something of a miracle that I came through it. I am just thankful that Dr Spence decided to go ahead and carry out the
Maurice’s images were captured by Karen, a 36-year-old mother of two girls, Tori, aged 9, and Lexie (7).
She says her interest was sparked in the competition because many members of her family live with the genetic heart condition, cardiomyopathy.
“I purely by accident came across the competition online and it struck me because it was for a heart condition,” she said. “My family carry a genetic heart condition. I myself am a carrier of cardiomyopathy.
“The condition is a thickening of the tissue in one of the heart valves.
“I have got to the age that I am and haven’t been affected, so I probably never will be. But my girls have to have heart scans every 18 months and they will have to be tested. I was genetically tested, but my girls will have to wait until they are between 16 and 18 years old to have their tests. They are just seven and nine now and have to be sound of mind to give their opinion if they want to have their own genetic testing.
“It comes from my mum’s side. She had found out that a lot of her cousins had been tested. She had a cousin that died aged 17, some 30 years ago. And then, there wasn’t the same testing.
“It’s only now that they think that is what she might have died with. They think that a lot of Adult Death Syndrome cases, and a lot of adult sports stars, die of cardiomyopathy. And people don’t find out until their loved one is dead. So a lot of my family were tested and a few of them had to get a little box, a pacemaker, that restarts their heart. One of my cousins had two heart attacks and if it wasn’t for the pacemaker, he would be gone. We were all tested then. There are eight of us in our family. Four of us are carriers and four are not. Thank God, every one has been caught in time.”
Karen says the competition lit a spark in her and she was shocked to have won the Northern Ireland heat.
“I was really drawn to the competition because it was a heart charity,” she said. “I am a wedding and family photographer mainly. So I sent through some of my family portraits because it was in a theme of love with the families. I thought I would never hear from them again and then I got an email a few months later that I had won for the whole of Northern Ireland and that the finals would be in London.”
Karen says meeting the inspirational Maurice and his wife Valerie on the day of the photoshoot was a magical moment.
“I went down to Bangor to meet Maurice and Valerie in Bangor a few weeks ago,” she says. “He is such a character, I had such fun with him and Valerie. I came into the house and the two of them were there. He hadn’t even told his wife that we were having a photoshoot.
“She was immaculately dressed and her hair was perfect — she looks like that every day, but she hadn’t got herself mentally
“My aim in the photo essay was to display life after the heart valve operation. Maurice’s garden was pampered and preened within an inch of its life. The garden is obviously his baby, so the photos are all taken around there. He had a few different sheds and benches in the garden. It was just to show that he is looking well, he is relaxed and happy and enjoying life — that he has been given a new lease of life with this operation and that he seems to be someone who really appreciates his life. He was a real comedian and full of life. He is such a lovely man.
“I couldn’t go to the finals because it clashed with my holiday in Spain that was booked earlier.
“We didn’t win the final, but it didn’t matter. We got so far and raised awareness.
“The response I’ve had from the pictures has been amazing. People are just so delighted to see people do well and to be recognised for success.
“I am extremely proud of myself. I was ecstatic to win the Northern Ireland heat. It was a proud day for me.”
The finalist’s images were exhibited at the Houses of Parliament on October 10 and will now tour round hospital heart clinics across the UK as part of a roadshow to celebrate the first European Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day
What the procedure involves
An aortic valve replacement is a type of open heart surgery used to treat problems with the heart’s aortic valve.
The valve controls the flow of blood out from the heart to the rest of the body.
An aortic valve replacement involves removing a faulty or damaged valve and replacing it with a new one made from synthetic materials or animal tissue.
The aortic valve may need to be replaced because it has become narrowed (aortic stenosis), obstructing the flow of blood out of the heart, or because it is leaky (aortic regurgitation), allowing blood to flow back through into the heart.
In severe cases this can lead to life-threatening problems such as heart failure, if left untreated.
During the procedure, a large cut about 25cm long is made in the chest to access the heart, the heart is stopped and a heart-lung (bypass) machine is used to take over during the operation.
The damaged or faulty valve is removed and replaced with the new one and the heart is restarted and the opening in your chest closed.
The patient will usually need to stay in hospital for about a week after an aortic valve replacement, although it may be two to three months before they fully recover.