Surviving a ruptured aortic aneurysm - Max's story
Senior Cardiac Nurse Christopher Allen meets Max Leslie, who survived a life-threatening aortic aneurysm rupture.
Max Leslie was 28 and, in his own words, “fit and healthy”. He had a physical job in grounds maintenance, and played football for a local team. But while jogging to the changing rooms before a match, he began feeling unwell.
“I started having a really strange sensation in my throat like I couldn’t swallow properly,” says Max. “I sat down on a bench and ignored it, as my manager starting giving a team talk. That’s when I started feeling very, very funny and started sweating. Someone told me to go outside and get some fresh air, but as I stood up I blacked out and collapsed to the floor.”
Max came round slowly and was taken to hospital. “When I got to A&E I had a dull ache in my chest, but I didn’t think anything was particularly wrong,” he says. “I’d even called my dad and said I was just being checked over and thought I’d be discharged in a couple of hours.”
But tests showed an irregular heartbeat and dramatic drop in blood pressure. Further tests revealed an aneurysm in the aorta that had ruptured near his heart.
Surgery for aortic aneurysm
Max’s surgeon, Professor Stephen Westaby, did a complex two-stage procedure to repair the aorta and surrounding blood vessels, and drained 750ml (more than a pint) of blood from Max’s chest.
Fit and healthy, with an active job, Max never expected heart troubles
Max was in hospital for a little over a week. “I was just happy I was still alive and the surgery had gone so well,” he says. “My first thought was getting out of hospital and going home.”
He was off work for about three months. “My work was really supportive,” he says. “They told me I could come back whenever I wanted, and that if things got too much [I could] have more time off.
“It was definitely good for me to go back because I enjoy my job so much. It helped me get my life back to what it was like before.”
Controlling blood pressure, eating a healthy diet and not smoking are some of the biggest things you can do to reduce your risk of an aneurysm. Max does all these things and takes ramipril, an ACE inhibitor, to keep his blood pressure down.
In a weird way, this has all happened at the right time – I was young and fit enough to survive it
Max stays active too, including through his work, but he has made some adaptations since his surgery. “I used to lift weights and I did a lot of resistance training, but I was told this could put too much pressure on my body,” he says.
“I got the go ahead from my doctor to do something called calisthenics, which is essentially a workout without gym equipment.”
He finds that being active helps him mentally. “It helps take my mind off things and makes me feel that what’s happened hasn’t held me back,” says Max. “It really helps keep my anxiety under control too.”
Max rejoined his old football team, but “just couldn’t get back into it like before”. Now, instead of playing competitively, he enjoys five-a-side with friends.
After a year, Max had recovered physically but started experiencing anxiety. “I’d never dealt with anything like this before,” he says. “The physical symptoms of feeling anxious were so similar to when I collapsed, that the first time I had a panic attack I called 999 for an ambulance. I felt like I was having a heart attack – I was sweaty and clammy and my heart was pounding.”
After his second panic attack Max sought help from his GP, who referred him for counselling. “The counselling has really helped and I’m on medications now too,” he says.
“I’ve learned that I deal with stress better if I tell someone as soon as it starts. Being able to talk about it makes a huge difference, but at first I was almost ashamed to tell people. I found it very difficult.
“I think it was because I’d never thought much about what happened. At the time, it hadn’t really sunk in how big a deal it was. It all happened so quickly and it took over a year for me to start dealing with it. Events like this can have a long-term effect; for me, this was anxiety.”
Max has made a good recovery and built a new life with his wife, Leanne
Max’s family and close friends have helped him get through the most difficult times. Straight after his surgery, Max moved back in with his parents while he recovered.
“Support from my family has been great,” he says. “My GP, my surgeon, all the hospital staff and my counsellor have been really good too. With my closer friends, we talk in detail and they’re great, but my wider circle of friends is more of a challenge. Some don’t understand my anxiety and it’s a difficult subject to talk about.”
Max met his wife, Leanne, seven months after his surgery. She has helped him stay positive and provided support when he needed it. “I met her on the first proper evening I’d had out since my surgery, and things just progressed,” he says.
“She’s been amazing all the way through. She has been an absolute rock. I don’t know what mental state I’d be in if I hadn’t found her.
“In a weird way, this has all happened at the right time – I was young and fit enough to survive it, and I might never have met my wife had it not been for all of this.”