‘I had heart surgery twice before I was 25 – but now nothing can stop me’

By | June 6, 2021

Watching Robyn Cairney bursting with energy as she instructs a spin class, it’s hard to believe she needed TWO open heart operations before she was 25.

The only giveaway is a long scar which runs from her collarbone down her chest.

It’s where she had to have her aortic valve replaced once with a pig’s valve and then again, just six years later, with another from a cow.

But anatomy lecturer Robyn – who teaches spin classes twice a week and is training for a marathon – has been determined not to let a small thing like that get in the way of her passion for fitness.

“I might not win the marathon but I’ll still do it,” says Robyn, now 30.

“Having a heart condition doesn’t mean you have to live a limited life.”

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Robyn Cairney

Robyn Cairney says even two heart ops won’t slow her down

Aortic valve malformation is life-threatening and is usually treated with a replacement valve which is either mechanical, or taken from an animal’s heart.

Such operations were pioneered in the early 1960s and now have a 94% five year survival rate, although animal valve replacements need to be replaced around once every decade.

“People are often surprised when I say I’ve had my heart valve replaced by both a pig and cow heart valve, but the surgery saved my life,” says Robyn, who was just 17 when she began to notice something was wrong.

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“I was at college studying Sports Therapy,” she says.

Robyn Cairney

Robyn Cairney is still very full of life – despite her two heart ops

“I was taking part in some fitness tests and I became really breathless and was coughing. My instructor at the time told me to go and get checked by my GP in case I had asthma.”

After a series of tests, doctors discovered she had a heart murmur, caused by a congenital defect in her aortic valve, which meant it hadn’t formed properly.

The diagnosis came out of the blue for Robyn. While the condition can run in families, nobody in her own had been affected. “I was devastated because I was into fitness,” she admits.

“I was just starting out on my studies and it was a huge knock to me physically, but also with my confidence.”

Unsurprisingly, Robyn became nervous about taking part in sports.

“It took me a long time to get back to normal – I was worried I’d make the condition worse,” she says. Then, when she was just 18, doctors broke the news she would need to have open heart surgery to replace the malformed valve with one from a pig’s heart. “I was devastated,” she says.

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“I was the only teenager on the ward. At my age it was unusual because I was a young adult – normally these problems are in babies or older people, as the valve can narrow if you don’t have a healthy lifestyle.”

While the surgery was a success, her recovery was slow.

“It took me about 12 weeks,” she says. “I was put through cardiac rehabilitation and gradually built up walking by doing five minutes more each day. I had to try to build up upper body strength too, without putting too much stress on my chest muscles.

“Even after I had completed rehab, when my college friends were going on nights out, I didn’t feel like I could because I was worried I’d get ill.

“It was quite isolating because no one really understood what I was going through.”

Just as Robyn was getting her confidence back, studying anatomy and playing for her university’s rugby team, her consultant revealed the distressing news that the pig valve already needed replacing.

On average, animal valve transplants last around 10 years, but Robyn’s had lasted just five. So at 24 she underwent her second open heart surgery, which saw the pig heart valve replaced with one from a cow.

“It was a huge blow,” she says. “I had joined a lot of sports teams at university but couldn’t play contact sports like rugby any more.”

Despite the setback, Robyn, who lives with her partner Simon, 35, in Middlesbrough, was determined not to completely abandon the sporty life she loved.

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“When I was 27 I took part in a 5km Race for Life because my niece was poorly,” she says.

“I wasn’t really a runner, although I’d done spinning at the gym, so I decided to start doing park runs to train. Since then I’ve stuck with it and built upon that 5km distance.”

Robyn took part in the Great North Run before the pandemic to raise money for the British Heart Foundation.

In April, she celebrated her 30th birthday by running 30km and has now set her sights on a marathon. “I’ve spoken to my consultant and they said: ‘You’ve done a half marathon so you’re fine to do a full one. The important thing is to know your body and what you’re capable of. I won’t push to win it. I’ll just do it at my own pace.

“People assume having a heart condition is a really limiting illness but I’m living proof that you can still have an active life – as long as you listen to the experts and your body.”

  • This month you can sign up for MyMarathon, pledging to run 26.2 miles throughout June to help to raise life-saving funds for the British Heart Foundation’s research into heart and circulatory diseases. Find out more at bhf.org.uk/mymarathon.

Mirror – Health