Emily’s Story

Name: Emily Sterling

Age: 24

Age when diagnosed: 6 weeks old

Condition: Bicuspid aortic valve, mixed aortic valve disease (aortic stenosis and regurgitation)

In February 2015 (just after my 20th birthday) I had open heart surgery to replace my aortic valve and ascending aorta which had become ballooned over time. I am young and active so wanted to avoid taking anticoagulants therefore opted to have a tissue valve replacement.

How has having a heart condition impacted on your mental health?

Having been under the care of Great Ormond Hospital from less than a year old I knew I would have some form of surgical intervention at some point. I was careful to keep fit and active, so all things considered my valve functioned much better than it should of and I was told I should be able to avoid surgery until I was in my 40’s.

Unfortunately, the condition of my valve deteriorated very rapidly a few months after starting at university studying Veterinary Medicine. At first I had no idea why I was struggling to keep up with everyone else. I was exhausted, rundown and depressed. I thought it was me and that I was a failure. That I couldn’t cope with the demands of vet school, a dream I’d pursued single-mindedly for as long as I could remember.

I remember sobbing myself to sleep only to wake up more exhausted, unable to figure out why just couldn’t cope. It was at that point I had a call to say my routine echo scan was not right and I needed to have more extensive tests done. This meant postponing and then a few months later deciding to let go of my dream of becoming a vet. Having worked so hard to get into vet school and never having wanted, or even imagined, pursuing any other career my mental health plummeted.

I went from loving being independent at university to moving back home and totally reliant on my family. I didn’t have the surgery until February the following year. Up until the surgery I indulged in reckless behaviours because the way I saw it at the time, my dream was dead and I was about to have open heart surgery, so why not!?… Not my finest year!

I was overwhelmed by disappointment when I woke up after surgery. I remember thinking I wish I’d not woken up, then I wouldn’t have to figure out what to do next with my life and how to move on. Four years on if I could go back and give my past-self one piece of advice I would tell her to hang in there. That it wouldn’t happen quickly but that things would get better and I would move on. Not only that but I would be a much stronger, better person for it.

My surgery was a catalyst for many things and many changes in my life but looking back it was a turning point for the better. It didn’t seem like it at the time but it taught me resilience and to live

life in the moment more. 18 months after my surgery I ran my first half marathon raise money for The Somerville Foundation, something I never would have thought I would be able to do.

How has The Somerville Foundation helped?

The Somerville Foundation supports the team that made my surgery and outstanding care possible in the first place. From the GUCH nurses to my consultant Fiona. For this there are no words to express my thanks or the thanks of my family.

The advice leaflets they produce too are fantastic and incredibly helpful. This may sound an odd thing to say but many people born with a condition struggle to receive help when they reach adulthood to manage their condition. Many people don’t realise their condition may mean they need to take into consideration things you might not usually have to think about. Hence why I am grateful for the advice available from the website and leaflets.

Most of all the Somerville Foundation has helped me remember I was not alone at a very low point during my life. I was so incredibly lucky to have a wonderful, supportive family around me but there are somethings they couldn’t understand but knowing that other people who I’d never met before knew my struggle and got through it was such a comfort to me.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

The Somerville Foundation and my experience of my heart condition has made me want to help others in similar situations. I will continue to support their work in any way that I can, for as long as I can. I am also applying to work for the NHS since graduating last summer as I want to give back by helping other people and their families through difficult times of their lives.

My extraordinary boyfriend Matt Coverdale is currently training to run the Manchester Marathon in April to raise money for The Somerville Foundation. He is such a wonderful, kind, positive person and his enthusiasm has been a big influence for me reconnecting with the Foundation now that I have reached a point where I can help others.

To donate to our BBC Radio 4 Appeal please follow the link below:

Donate Here