My life is full and gorgeous, all thanks to this hospital

Cathryn Ramsden
By Cathryn Ramsden     25/07/2018

I was born with a hole in my heart and a leaking aortic valve; my dad was in the army and we were based in Hampshire.  

We were referred to Royal Brompton Hospital for my surgery; in 1978 it was cutting edge stuff. 

My consultant cardiothoracic surgeon was Mr Christopher Lincoln and my cardiologist was Dr Michael Joseph.

Obviously, I was very little, so my main recollection is eyeing the gorgeous rocking horse in the hallway of the waiting room.

But my parents remember the experience much better. I can see how traumatic it would have been for them.

Apparently, the night before my surgery we stayed up praying. I sat up and said, “I’m going to see Jesus tomorrow."

The waiting game

This obviously alarmed them! On the day of the operation itself, the staff – a little bizarrely – advised my parents to go to Harrods to look at the fish display.

The nurses told them to go and look at the fish and come back and tell them about it – I’m guessing this was the staff’s go-to distraction technique for anxious parents!

I was still in surgery when they got back. They didn’t know why. And in those days doctors didn’t give much detail to patients or parents.

My mum and dad were just hugely grateful when I came through and after a few weeks, they could at last take me home.

Years later, I had a conversation with our family doctor. He made a comment about how I had ‘died on the table’. Apparently, my heart had stopped and the doctors had to work to save me.

So, I had ‘gone to Jesus’. But thankfully, I had come back!

Annual check-ups

I do have lots of memories of those annual check-ups at Royal Brompton Hospital and the squillions of trainee doctors who were always present for the consultation. They used to intimidate me a lot as a child, the ‘X-ray ladies’ were much nicer.

I never really remember feeling any different afterwards - my parents did an amazing job at making sure I wasn't treated very differently. I still did PE like all the other kids, only with considerably less talent but that was nothing to do with my heart.

My life as a child was very normal - I don't recall any time that my heart condition really impacted my life as a child.

But I know if you spoke to my mum she would have another story.

When we talk about it now, mum says that whenever I had a fever, my parents would be able to see my heart pumping in my chest; I think for her my childhood must have been an anxious time.

To her credit, my mum never passed her worries on to me. For example, I always had a really positive view of my scar. We called it my 'zip' and it was always made clear to me that I was alive because of this zip so we loved it. 

It doesn't bother me in the least. It's very pale now but it tans when I tan, it gets white in the winter. It has never occurred to me to try and hide it.

Becoming a mum

Eight years ago, I gave birth to a little boy and this gave me more insight into what things must have been like for them. My condition is genetic so there was definitely a significantly increased chance that 'something' would be wrong with his heart.

We had an in utero scan when he was about 18 weeks old to see if his heart looked healthy. His heart did look healthy but doctors kept reminding me that they wouldn't know until he was actually born.

When the doctor came to do the routine check the next day, my heart was in my mouth I was so nervous. I asked her twice about his heart and she looked puzzled until I explained and she reassured me. I had a bit of a cry. 

But honestly, I didn't believe he was fine until my Mum saw him the next day and told me that I had never looked as pink and healthy as he was looking and that I didn't need to worry any more.

I am unceasingly grateful for his strong little heart.

Enjoying life

I lead an entirely healthy, normal life. As well as being a wife and a mother, I'm obsessed with running (I run half marathons) and I blog about it at I also love cycling, hiking, camping, skiing and being outside. This September I’m starting a PGCE qualification so that I can teach primary school children.

My family and I have just moved back to the UK after seven years in California – yes, Royal Brompton Hospital gave me the chance to live in San Francisco! My parents live nearby and I get to see them every week.

My heart remains healthy. It had a little wobble after my son was born – it remained fine during pregnancy and birth but postnatally my aortic valve got bigger, to the point where my cardiologist in America thought I might need a valve replacement before very long.

Over time it went back to its normal size, but we chose not to have more children, so I have my little boy and the most amazing ginger cat. Now I’m back in the UK and I have returned to Royal Brompton Hospital for my regular heart check-ups.

My gratitude

My mum is thrilled that I’m back at what she regards to be the best heart hospital in the UK; understandably, she’s a big fan.

I admit that when I walk through those doors, next to the café where the nice women sold ham and white-bread sandwiches in the 1980s – part of me always shakes a little when memories of being very little and feeling ill come flooding back.

Now I'm older and a mother, I'm just so incredibly grateful for all that Royal Brompton did for me.

In 1978, this must have been major, scary surgery. But the doctors did it. I'm alive. And I really am so very grateful.

My life is full and gorgeous, all thanks to this hospital.

Cathryn Ramsden, 43, underwent cardiac surgery at Royal Brompton hospital in 1978, when she was three.