Bypass surgery and recovery - Tom’s story

Tom Riley

Tom Riley, 86, from West Sussex, developed angina in his early 60s and went on to have a heart bypass. This is the story of his diagnosis and surgery, and how he recovered afterwards and built up to fitness again.

Tom Riley readily admits that for many years his diet was not as healthy as it could be. Having grown up in an orphanage, where he got barely enough to eat, once he reached adulthood he was keen to make up for lost time. First it was greasy meals in his time in the RAF – where Tom always ate his fellow airmen’s leftovers – and then when Tom married, four cooked meals a day, invariably including a fry-up for breakfast.

Tom blames his years of eating a lot of fatty foods for the fact that in his early 60s he started to feel angina pains. He was working as an electronics engineer, and although in his second marriage Tom tried to eat more healthily, there were still plenty of large business lunches.

He had just finished one such lunch when he began to be conscious of what he thought was severe heartburn. He says: “I dismissed it as the consequences of gluttony: I had no tablets anyway and the discomfort settled on my arrival home.”

We also resolved to keep to a strict diet, which stands us in good stead to this day

But he began to find that walking into the wind produced the same symptoms of what he thought was heartburn, and realised he needed to see his GP.

His GP diagnosed angina and referred him to hospital for an angiogram. In the meantime, Tom tried hard to keep active. He would regularly take a six-mile walk near his home, despite the angina pains in the first quarter mile.

The angiogram took place at King’s College Hospital in south London – Tom describes it as painless, although he could feel his heart beat strongly “as if it was trying to gallop out of the room”, as the catheter entered the heart.

Bypass surgery

Tom had a meeting with Mr Desai, his surgeon. “I was shown the pictures of my heart, clearly indicating four blockages to the coronary arteries.” The surgeon explained the risks of bypass surgery – in his case, about 3% chance of serious complications or death. Tom says: “I thought the odds reasonable, so I said ’go to it’.”

As it turned out, there were some complications during the operation – there was internal bleeding which took time to stop, and Tom was unconscious for 48 hours. But when he woke up, with a urinary catheter in place and an oxygen mask on, “I felt very comfortable and it only hurt when I laughed.”

He soon discovered that this was the effect of the painkillers, and at first, “When the effect wore off and one’s next wasn’t due for half an hour or so, one felt as if one had just been run over by a number seven bus.”

I felt very comfortable and it only hurt when I laughed

But this soon passed and Tom gradually recovered, walking a little further down the ward each day. Six days after the operation, after he had proved he could walk up and down two flights of stairs, he was sent home by taxi.

He was keen to start rehabilitation as soon as possible, so decided to start walking the next day. “I stepped out on the gravel outside my house and arrived gasping and shaking at next door’s gatepost,” he says. “Not a step further could I go. Chastened, I almost crawled back into the house. This would require some thought. I mapped out a program for myself and started grimly the next day. Ten yards out and ten yards back for a couple of days then doubling it up every day until I reached the end of the lane.”

He says: “It took a little time until I could cough without discomfort, but - apart from feeling like a sandwich board advertising man with a great heavy lump of board fixed to my chest - I felt weak, but fully functioning.”

He was determined to keep active, and once he returned to work, walked every day in his lunch break. At weekends he and his wife drove to a flat road and started timed walking, starting by walking with ten minutes along and ten minutes back, and gradually increasing it. Tom adds: “We also resolved to keep to a strict diet, which stands us in good stead to this day.”

Tackling the 'mountain’

A few months after the surgery, Tom decided it was time to tackle “the mountain” – the six-mile walk ending in a steep hill of about half a mile.

I’ve found the best way of tackling steepish hills is not to look for the top but to concentrate on the boots

“As I set out on the first section, I expected any minute to feel the old stab in the chest but miracle of miracles, I arrived in fine fettle. The next bit was no problem either, says Tom. When the hill, or “my muddy Kilimanjaro” as Tom describes it, came into sight, he says: “It was not without misgivings that I ventured the foothills.”

He adds: “I’ve found the best way of tackling steepish hills is not to look for the top but to concentrate on the boots, and so we slosh, slosh, sloshed our way forward, nose to the footwear.

When he got to the top, he says: “I was only a little puffed, with my heart beating a smooth and confident 70 to the minute. We practically galloped the last bit and headed for home, lunch, and some celebratory wine.”

Tom says: “My thanks go out to all the wonderful medical staff concerned in this tale, their cheerful and always confident attitude to their roles in my resurrection, and for 20 very active years.”

Read Tom’s experience of dealing with sexual issues as well as his heart problems

Related publications

More useful information