NHS at 70: Steve's story

Steve Syer
By Steve Syer     04/07/2018

My heart failed in 1984, just after the Christmas break. 

I didn’t know what was happening – I was a man in my early forties who’d been previously healthy.

I’d only been back at work one day after the holidays when I got what I thought was the flu.

I felt really grotty – it was so bad I called the doctor who told me to stay in bed.

The next day I woke up and I could feel my heart hammering; I called my doctor again and I was taken by ambulance to my local general hospital.

By now it was clear something was very wrong: I found out my heart was failing due to viral cardiomyopathy (where the ventricles enlarge but aren’t able to pump sufficient blood).

Doctors tried stopping and starting my heart, but I don’t think it made any difference.

I languished on a ward for a few weeks, because they didn’t really know how to treat me. 

Eventually I was transferred to Bristol Royal Infirmary where I had an angiogram.

It was there that a doctor told me: ‘The only thing we can do for you is a heart transplant. What do you think about that?’

The truth was, I knew I didn’t have any choice. 

I never doubted the success

It sounds strange now, but from that moment on, when we said yes to the transplant, my wife Chris and I never ever doubted the success of the surgery.

I was rushed, blue lights blazing, to Harefield Hospital where I first met the surgeon, Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub.

I asked the nurse how I’d recognise him, and she said, ‘You will just know. He has a presence about him.’

It was true. He popped his head around the door, and we knew.

After talking to me for a little while, Magdi went quiet. Then he simply said the words: ‘We’ll do it.’

One day in February, we were told there was a heart for me and it was all systems go – I was prepared for theatre.

When I woke up, my new heart in place, I wasn’t on the intensive care unit; they had these specially air-conditioned rooms for transplant patients. We had to be completely isolated. The transplant team wanted to guard against any risk of infections.

They’re more relaxed now and understand the risks better, but in the ‘80s they were pretty strict: if you went out of your room you had to wear a mask.

During my recovery I got to know everyone well; the hospital became a second home. 

Magdi had an amazing presence – everyone on Rowan, the transplant ward, was in awe of him. He was extremely dedicated and set a high benchmark for everyone.

Returning home

After a few weeks, I returned home. I’d been on my back for six weeks. I’d left the careful controlled environment of Harefield to return to a house where the kids were cooking burgers, the place was covered in dust and the dog jumped up and licked me!

When I returned to work – I was a Rank Xerox engineer at the time – I think everyone felt worried. I had to persuade them I was the same person as before. They eventually relented and believed me, and I carried on working for another 18 years.

Of course, over the past 34 years, I regularly return to Harefield for check-ups.

I remember one time, I was teasing the doctor saying ‘Come on, get a move on, I’ve got to get back to tile my bathroom.’

The doctor was aghast: he said: ‘You can’t do that! Think of the germs!’

But I haven’t let myself be reined in by health worries, I’ve just carried on my normal life.

I was chairman of the Harefield Transplant Club – otherwise known as the Harefield Hamsters, which is for patients who have had, or are waiting for, either a heart or lung transplant – for about 13 years. This meant I was invited to all kinds of meetings and I got to know the staff in a different setting, which was nice.  They were always welcoming. It’s a very friendly hospital.

As part of that, I got to see more of Magdi. He’s a very humble man. At fundraisers, I’d hear people say to him, ‘Thank you for saving me!’ and he’d say, ‘I’m just doing my job.’

I don’t know many of the other patients now. But I was having a chat with someone in the waiting area the last time I had an appointment at Harefield. They asked, ‘How long is it now?’ and I replied, ‘Thirty three years.’

Someone who had just had a transplant overheard and said, ‘Really?’ He was so pleased. It was nice. I do think I give a lot of people hope.

The doctors can be pretty surprised too. My appointments are usually in August – just when the new influx of junior doctors come in. One doctor was so gobsmacked when he realised how long I’d been alive he could hardly believe it!

Of course it hasn’t been all plain sailing. My kidneys packed up a few years ago, so in August 2016 my wife Chris donated one of hers.

We also found out in 2007 I have Becker Muscular Dystrophy. They did a gene test when I started getting leg pains.

We’d had no idea before, as these tests simply weren’t available in the past. It’s a milder type than Duchenne, but it can weaken the heart.

My legs are giving out a bit now, but to be fair, I am 76.

But I have no intentions of giving up. I love camping in Cornwall, and adore spending time with my family.

As well as my two children, I have got to meet my six grandchildren and three great granddaughters. And another one is on the way!

The NHS – in particular, Harefield and Magdi Yacoub – has given me that gift.

That is priceless. 

Steve Syer, 76, had a heart transplant in 1984 at Harefield Hospital, making him one of the longest surviving patients