How Bill Overton stays upbeat despite heart failure
After a proud career in the army, Bill Overton refuses to be defeated by ill health. He tells Sarah Brealey how he enjoys life as much as he can.
Bill Overton, 72, takes 26 tablets a day for severe heart failure and other conditions – but he tries to stay positive. “I think a sense of humour is vital, to laugh at yourself and not to complain or allow things to get you down,” he says.
Bill, from Andover, attributes his determined attitude to his army background. He joined at 18 and served in Cyprus, Canada, Kenya and Germany. “It instils in you the need to be positive, to think of others more than yourself and to refuse to give up,” he says. Bill was a 40-year-old army major and extremely fit when he collapsed suddenly. In hospital, he was found to have a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. Surgeons thought he wouldn’t survive, and when he did, they told him he was unlikely to live past 50. “I refused to give up and within three months passed the army fitness tests again,” he says.
Four years later, he had a heart attack “out of the blue” and attended cardiac rehabilitation to help his recovery. Again, he passed the army’s fitness tests soon afterward, but three years later he had another heart attack and emergency heart bypass surgery.
I think a sense of humour is vital, to laugh at yourself and not to complain or allow things to get you down
Bill attended cardiac rehab again and changed his lifestyle, cutting out fried foods and alcohol and eating more vegetables. He passed the army fitness test once more and went on to be promoted to lieutenant colonel before leaving the army in 1992, aged 50. He then took a job managing funds in a doctors’ surgery “as a way of saying thank you to the NHS”.
But Bill’s medical problems continued, and he retired in 1995 for health reasons. Then, in August 2001, he suffered the first of five anaphylactic shocks – a severe allergic reaction that can be life-threatening. He still suffers from constant allergic reactions whose cause is unknown, but they are controlled with medication and occasional adrenaline injections.
Bill’s heart attacks have left him with severe heart failure. He has atrial fibrillation, diverticular disease, severe allergies, cellulitis and dermatitis. He also suffers from chronic pain and exhaustion, but he refuses to be beaten and says he aims for “a good quality of life”.
Every day, Bill takes his “daily cocktail” of medication. “I spend half an hour every Sunday morning preparing my tablets for the following week. It is part of my routine,” he says. “I use a dosette box – I find that easier than going through all my drugs three times a day to find the right ones.”
There are some downsides. “I’m on blood thinners, so I’m careful not to cut myself, because the bleeding can take longer to stop. I also get patches of blood just under my skin, especially on my hands and arms,” says Bill. But he knows that taking his medication is vital to his health. “The drugs are keeping me alive, with a very, very poor heart and very low blood pressure.”
He sees his cardiologist, Dr Peter Golledge, every three months when he has his medication reviewed. “He tries to keep it stable if I am doing well – he only adjusts it if I am struggling. At the moment, we have reached what I call a utopia.”
Bill and his wife have been inspired and supported by Heart Matters. He says: “The articles are very important.” After reading an article about dabigatran as an alternative to warfarin that does not require regular blood tests, Bill discussed it with his cardiologist and found that the medication was appropriate for him. “It saves me and my wife spending two or three hours a week travelling to hospital and waiting to have my blood tested,” he says.
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Bill says the army gave him a strong sense of team spirit, a feeling he draws now from the smaller unit of family and health professionals who fight for him. He is full of praise for Dr Golledge. “He is a wonderful man,” he says. “He is so helpful and does everything he can to improve my quality of life. He gives me and my wife so much confidence.”
Bill also sees a pain consultant every six months, which he says is a great help. “People knock the NHS, but I owe my life to it,” he says. “I have met some wonderful people, including the surgeons who operated on me and the nurses who looked after me.
”Bill’s other major source of support is his wife, Liz, “an angel”, as he calls her. “I am so lucky she is the person she is,” Bill says. “I honestly feel it has been harder for Liz than for me. She’s had to sit for days on end waiting for me to come through; she’s had to ring family members and be the one who visits me in hospital every day. She has had to change her way of life as much as I have.”
It instils in you the need to be positive, to think of others more than yourself and to refuse to give up
Bill and Liz have been married for 36 years, and between them they have two children and four grandchildren. The couple do what they can to enjoy life together, despite Bill’s health problems.
The heart failure makes him so tired that he goes to bed at 6.30pm, which means they can no longer go out in the evening, but once a fortnight they go out for lunch instead. “You adapt your life around it. You find your way of living and make it as enjoyable as you can,” says Bill.
Once a year, they treat themselves to a holiday in the Maldives. “It is my way of thanking my wife,” says Bill. “We book 11 months ahead and then she can look forward to it. I find the journey difficult, but as long as I can manage it, we are not going to give it up.
It’s hard not to be struck by Bill’s ability to stay upbeat. He doesn’t rail against his health problems, but “gets on with life”, as he puts it, despite knowing that there is no cure for heart failure. “I look at it as a positive that – thanks to a few wonderful doctors and nurses – I am still here. With massive support from my wife and my cardiologist, I can make life worth living and not just a short life sentence. I just hope my story will inspire others to fight on and not give in.”
Finding a cure for heart failure
For people like Bill who are living with severe heart failure, every day is a battle. Every year, thousands more families have to watch the people they love struggle with the distressing symptoms. Through our research, we intend to end this suffering forever.
Since 2011, money raised through our Mending Broken Hearts Appeal has helped us recruit some of the best minds in the field of regenerative medicine and invest millions in the facilities they need to carry out their research.
Find out more or make donation or call 0300 330 3322.