January 27, 2010
by Lindsay Brown
Howard Kelly was 23 years old when he had his pink birthday, that is, when his skin turned from a blue hue to a healthy peach. Instead of having a corrective operation within the first two to three years of life, as today’s children born with his heart condition do, Howard Kelly’s cautious father, a heart specialist, waited for medical procedures to advance. It was 1980 when Howard underwent 17 hours of pioneering open heart surgery.
“I didn’t walk at all until I was 11 years old,” he explains. “I was in a wheelchair all through my teenage years.”
If untreated, the congenital heart disease is usually fatal by the age of 20. Tetralogy of Fallot, named after a French physician, accounts for ten per cent of all congenital heart diseases. The condition is incredibly weakening. Symptoms include a hole between the ventricles, the bottom chambers of the heart, which wrongly permits oxygen-poor and oxygen-rich blood to mix. Circulation to the lungs is also restricted. Oxygen-deficient blood is blue in colour and affects the tint of the person’s skin. The tinting is known as Cyanosis.
“I could walk just 20-30 yards, and I was very cyanotic,” recalls Kelly.
Parents of a child born with the ailment are advised to safeguard their son or daughter to the best of their abilities from crying or experiencing anger. Worrying about the condition strains the heart, which is already likely to exhibit Hypertrophy, the thickening and hardening of an overworked ventricle muscle.
Howard, who now rides his bike eight miles to work every day, beat the odds by surviving beyond his first 20 years without receiving treatment. He met his wife Judith two years before the operation in their home town of Lancashire. Their parents had been family friends. Four years after the operation, she went to Glasgow to study, and they married in 1984. They now have two daughters who live in Edinburgh.
“The irony was that my dad was a heart specialist. I was naive. I trusted my parents and they wanted to trust God. I was near dying but I wasn’t worried. I believed God would look after me.
“When I was nine years old, a South African minister prayed for me and I got a little better. A minister prayed over me when I was 14, and again, I got a little bit better. I don’t know why it didn’t heal me completely. I think it was meant to get me through [earning my] degree.”
Howard has a degree in English Literature. His first teaching job was in Dunoon, on the west coast of Scotland. He now teaches at The Grange School, Hartford.
The surgical procedures for treating Tetralogy of Fallot often involve two steps. A shunt is placed between major arteries just outside the heart to improve blood flow to the lungs. This is a temporary solution usually performed on infants and small children. The patient is then given open heart surgery.
Professor David Wheatley, who won the Great Scot award in 1992 for his extraordinary achievements in cardiology, was Howard’s surgeon. He discovered that Howard did not require the shunt and so performed a one-shot surgery that lasted 17 hours at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. When he received the Scot of the Year Award, an award nicknamed the People’s Oscars, he mentioned Howard in an interview as one of his most memorable patients.
Published at www.buzzmag.org