My story

Determined to recover after emergency heart valve surgery: Mark's story

Being in the military prepared Mark Fordham to take on life’s challenges. He tells us how emergency heart surgery and its aftermath would prove to be his toughest battle so far.

In October 2010, I left the army with a clean bill of health, ready to embark on life as a civilian. I got a job as a technical equipment instructor nearby in Gloucestershire, which I was really enjoying. In January 2012, during one lunch hour I sat down and suddenly felt something ‘go’ in my chest. It was a strange sensation that left me feeling short of breath. I didn’t feel right, so I decided to go home.

That day I made an appointment to see a nurse, who said it looked like the flu and to see how I was feeling the next day. But that night was horrendous; I couldn’t sleep and was having trouble breathing. I went to the GP first thing and was sent to hospital in Bath, where I was admitted while they tried to work out what was wrong.

I couldn’t understand why this was happening. I was a fit 42-year-old who’d been running up hills two weeks before. Things got progressively worse in hospital and I was admitted to critical care a few days later. It was touch-and-go whether I’d make it. That time was horrible for my wife Tracy and my two teenage boys, Thomas and Mikey, who thought they might lose their dad.

A week later, I woke up in the Bristol Heart Institute having had emergency open heart surgery. The doctors told me I’d had mitral and tricuspid valve prolapse, meaning the valves in my heart weren’t closing properly, which was allowing blood to flow back the wrong way. To top it off, I had endocarditis (an infection of the heart lining) too.

Searching for answers

When I first woke up and my wife said, “It was your heart”, it was a big shock. I pulled a face and said: “I don’t believe you.” But there was a six-inch scar on my chest and three prominent scars where the chest drains had been. Being in the army I’d always been fit and two years before I left I had a full medical which didn’t pick anything up. I thought my body was in pretty good shape, despite the occasional aches and pains, which I put down to getting older. So there I was, trying to piece together what had happened while I was unconscious, and why. I felt like my body had let me down.

I felt like my body had let me down

Nobody at the Bristol Heart Institute could explain why two of my valves decided to go at the same time, but I’ve wondered whether it could be to do with my time in the army. I served in the Gulf War and Northern Ireland, getting hammered by physical demands and stressful situations. When I look back at the punishment my body had to cope with over a 24-year service career, all that adrenaline must have taken its toll. But, on the other hand, it could have been something totally different.

Getting back on track

During my time in hospital I lost around a stone (6kg), so I looked gaunt and weak. Getting home from hospital was an achievement in itself. Looking in the mirror at the scar down my chest and my misshapen rib cage, I remember thinking that the active life I led before had evaporated.

I worried about whether I’d feel comfortable going swimming or taking my shirt off on the beach in summer. My wife was brilliant and told me that it was a survivor’s scar that I should be proud of, and it would fade with time. I thought: “OK, it’s happened, now how do I get myself back on my feet?” I knew I had to put the effort in and get into a routine, so with the help of my wife and boys, I started going to cardiac rehab gym sessions. It took me some time to gain the confidence to go for a long walk but I managed to overcome the sudden anxiety at every hint of an ache.

Mark Fordham sitting on his couch with a cuppa, talking to his son

Mark continues as a father to his two teenage boys

Eventually, I started jogging again and my confidence in my body returned. I learned to deal with the residual anxiety of the trauma I went through and I have come to appreciate how resilient the human body is – as Clint Eastwood says in Heartbreak Ridge, my body had to “improvise, overcome and adapt”.

My two boys are into rugby, and once I was back in shape, I started coaching my youngest son Mikey’s team. Since then I’ve qualified as a rugby coach and referee on Saturdays, which has helped us get back to some sort of normality. I can’t play rugby because of the contact element but recently I managed to play touch rugby with my boys – another little achievement.

Mark Fordham refereeing at a rugby game

He now coaches his son's rugby team and referees

It hasn’t always been easy to stay on top of things. A few years on from the surgery my weight ballooned. I ended up weighing more than 14-and-a-half stone (93kg), which made me struggle. That wake-up call led me to join Slimming World with my wife, and I managed to lose more than 23 pounds (10.5kg) and achieve my target weight. Now we make sure we eat healthy meals and allow ourselves occasional treats, but most of the time we’re ‘on plan’. Going to the gym and running help me keep my weight down too – which is a continual battle.

A new lease of life

I’ve managed to get away with just taking an aspirin every day. My only limitation is that I have to keep my heart rate below 150 beats per minute when I exercise, but I’ve never exceeded that as a referee. When I tell people I’ve had heart surgery, they look at me strangely and ask if I should be running around on the field. And the answer is yes – I won’t let this rule my life.

I’ve discovered that life after surgery goes on. Thanks to support from my family, the BHF and my cardiac rehab team, I’ve gone from being wiped out to a qualified referee. And I’m forever grateful to the surgeons at the Bristol Heart Institute, who saved my life and returned a father and husband to my family.

Mark Fordham standing with his wife on a rugby pitch
Marks' wife helped him get back on his feet

Doing the rugby, the running and Slimming World has helped get my fitness back on track, but it’s also given me much more of a social life. If it wasn’t for the heart problems, I’d probably have sold my soul to work, but instead I’m doing things now that I’d never have dreamt of.

The future looks good and I’m just happy to be here enjoying the here and now. I have no issue with my scar anymore and if anyone asks I just tell them: “My body is amazing”.


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