Linda Murray (62) from Lisburn was diagnosed with a mitral valve prolapse eight years ago. This is when the mitral valve becomes floppy which can cause it to not close properly and leak. In January 2020 the damage to the valve had worsened and she was referred for valve repair surgery.
“I had always been incredibly fit and was part of a running club when I was diagnosed with the mitral valve prolapse,” she said.
“The condition worsened over the years and just before the pandemic hit, I was told it would require open heart surgery on the valve. However, we are more than a year on, and I am still waiting for the call for surgery.”
More than a year later Linda has still not received the surgery and fears the damage to her valve in that time may mean she needs a full valve replacement rather than repair:
“Over the past year it has impacted me in many ways. I have been called for the pre-operative assessment a few times and then I have been mentally preparing myself for the surgery, only for it not to happen which is tough to deal with.
“The condition means I am incredibly tired. Some days all I can do is work and sleep because it takes so much out of me. I have always been very fit and active and loved hiking up mountains. I tell myself to hold on and not despair and once I get the surgery I will be able to do that again. At the minute I have to sleep sitting up because lying down I don’t feel like I can breathe.
“It is now at the stage where we won’t know if I will need a full valve replacement or repair until the surgeon begins operating. My cardiologist and hospital staff have been incredible but it’s the system that’s the problem.”
It comes as new figures show 30 times more people are waiting over six months for cardiac surgery than a year ago, according to analysis by British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland (BHF NI).
The latest figures show the seismic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on potentially life saving surgery for heart patients as services were pushed to the limit.
BHF NI has called for the backlog of people waiting for surgery, such as coronary bypass and heart valve surgery, to be urgently addressed before it becomes too late for some patients on the list.
BHF NI said that due to the pandemic, surgeries were cancelled and many cardiology services were paused in order to deal with the impact of Covid-19. Long waits to have, or be referred for, surgery or treatment ''can lead to unnecessary deaths and poorer quality of life.''
BHF NI said cardiology should be one of the priority areas for the health service in Northern Ireland as the system rebuilds. The heart research charity said it is vital that heart services are prioritised, protected and expanded to address the significant backlog of people awaiting treatment.
Head of BHF NI Fearghal McKinney said: “Staff across our health service have worked tirelessly for more than a year now to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. In cardiology, services were pulled or dramatically reduced in order to deal with the onslaught of the pandemic, and staff have gone above and beyond since last March. We can’t ask any more of them.
“Heart operations are not something that people can easily go without – delaying them can cost lives. The significant backlog of people needing heart surgery will keep growing as there are also significant numbers of people waiting for cardiology referrals and many of these are likely to require surgery. That waiting list will only get longer and make no mistake, as this goes on people will die on that waiting list or will have died already.
“Every number on that waiting list is a person with a family worried sick about the future. Many of them are facing anxiety and a worsening quality of life as time goes by. It is important that if your symptoms are worsening whilst you wait that you seek medical advice”
BHF NI has convened a panel of clinicians, academics and patients to develop a heart disease strategy for Northern Ireland.
Fearghal McKinney said that a dedicated heart disease strategy, informed by the lessons learned during the pandemic is needed to tackle one of Northern Ireland's biggest killers.
“Heart disease is a major cause of ill health and death in Northern Ireland and the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. We estimate that around 225,000 people are living with heart and circulatory diseases here and people living with these conditions are at significantly higher risk of serious ill health and death from Covid-19. This past year has been incredibly worrying for them,” he said.
“An ambitious, long term, strategic plan, informed by innovative thinking along with significant and recurrent funding for cardiac care will ensure that services build back better. We must see this commitment to cardiac services from the Department of Health in the form of a heart disease strategy."