People in Focus: Fintona’s Holly Gibson eyes “Lough5” on ‘Journey of recovery’ from Congenital Heart Disease

In our People in Focus series here at Tyrone Life we are always amazed and inspired by the many journeys, experiences and challenges which our many fantastic young people embark upon. 

This latest interview with Fintona’s Holly Gibson is the latest in the series and certainly provides a very vivid picture of the vulnerability of us all and how we must always dig deep to face our own adverse challenges.

Rather than get into the detail just yet, here is Holly’s story of a tough journey in which 2017 started out with her enduring ‘Open Heart Surgery’ and her recovery since then which will culminate on New Year’s Eve by taking part n the Annual Lough5 – a 5 Mile Run/Walk in Loughmacrory…

People in Focus profile…
Holly Gibson, Fintona

Holly at the launch of the 2017 Lough 5 Road Race

Tell us about where you came from…

I grew up in Fintona, coming from a great family of two sisters, two brothers (with me being the baby) and my mum. I was always a happy-go-lucky, bubbly girl growing up and enjoyed spending time with friends, all forms of sport and most of all music. I was heavily involved in my school choir at St. Lawrence’s Primary from an extremely young age with the great guidance of my music teacher at the time, Sinead Loane. I had the privilege throughout my 7 years there to perform in school shows/plays, singing solo at special events in mass and even singing at a few weddings.

Like most young kids I would always look forward to a Friday for P.E and of course sports day come the end of the school year, although I would of always struggled to a certain extent feeling out of breath and unfit almost. Being so young I never passed any remarks. But it was on my final sports day at St. Lawrence’s in P.7 where my life would ultimately be changed.

After the 200m sprinting event I suddenly fainted with my lips turning blue. From the weeks following this I underwent numerous tests and scans ultimately being referred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. It was here at the age of 11 I was diagnosed with Aortic Stenosis.

And so, that was the beginning of my journey with congenital heart disease…

  • What is aortc stenosis?
    • Aortic stenosis is one of the most common and most serious valve disease problems. Aortic stenosis is a narrowing of the aortic valve opening.  Aortic stenosis restricts the blood flow from the left ventricle to the aorta and may also affect the pressure in the left atrium.
  • What is CHD (Congenital Heart Disease)?
    • Congenital heart disease is a general term for a range of birth defects that affect the normal workings of the heart. The term “congenital” means the condition is present at birth. Congenital heart disease is one of the most common types of birth defect, affecting up to 9 in every 1,000 babies born in the UK

At this age, just about to enter my teens what did this mean for me?

I was told by the Cardiology team that because of my condition I could not play sports, get tattoos/piercings and no excessive alcohol. But other than this I could live a normal life as my condition was stable, with the knowledge that some years down the line I would need open heart surgery to replace my valve.

I was seen twice a year at RVH until I was 16 and then once a year after that. There was just some progression in the severity of my stenosis through the years, but I was not dealing with any major symptoms. I did feel very fortunate that although I had a heart condition I was still able to carry on with basically normal day-to-day life throughout my teens and even lot of the time never thought about my condition.

But as you can imagine stepping into adulthood, becoming much more aware of your body and mental health, the stress and physical challenges of everyday life became much more prominent.

At the age of 22 I had so many aspirations and goals I had wanted to achieve in the past and present years, but I found myself feeling somewhat lost and unaccomplished as I was abnormally exhausted, and had been for quite a while. I was working full time and I can recall avoiding the smallest of things, like just going up a set of stairs because I would feel so out of breath and tired. Sometimes even getting severe chest pain. As a young adult it was mentally challenging, and I was guilty many times of ignoring my symptoms and pushing through them just to feel ‘normal’ and do what my friends were doing.

Going through Open Heart surgery…

It was just a short time after, in February this year, that I fainted without warning whilst driving. I was rushed to the RVH and when tests were carried out I was made aware of just how severe my condition had become. Experts told me that the time had come for surgery and that my own valve may not have lasted much longer.

The thought of open heart surgery had me terrified. I was still young, in a relationship, and had so much else I wanted to do with my life. Travelling being the main goal.

Thoughts that I may not come out of the operation or that something could go wrong swarmed my mind. But I knew deep down that this was my only choice in moving forward with my life no matter how scared I was.

I spent just over 6 weeks in total in hospital being nearly two hours away from home. It was the hardest 6 weeks of my life. On the 4th week I received my life saving, open heart surgery. I was in theatre for 7 hours in total and thankfully the operation was a success.

“It was a complete whirlwind of pain and struggle for me mentally and physically, but I have to say It was in those moments where you really appreciate the little things in life. That the silly day to day things we complain or argue about really don’t matter and how much of a blessing it is just being alive at all.”

Bravehearts N.I.

Though spending 6 weeks in hospital was tough, I was blessed with meeting the most amazing organisation, Bravehearts.

I was approached by the founder of Bravehearts, Clare Caufield, one day as I sat on my hospital bed. Claire had been informed I was going to be in hospital for some time and that I was going to be going through surgery.

  • Who are Bravehearts N.I?
    • Bravehearts N.I is a local charity set up to support the needs of teenagers and young adults in Northern Ireland with Congenital Heart Disease (CHD). Their primary focus is on social and welfare, care and patient support, doing all they can to make life living with CHD easier. They also support the work of the Adult Congenital Heart Disease (ACHD) team at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. The charity is made up of 100% volunteers who all have connections to CHD, whether it be someone who has CHD themselves or a family member.

Here are just some of the things the charity provides:

  • ¬ Patient and family support before, during and after hospital stays.
  • ¬ A pastoral and welfare befriendment service for Bravehearts and their families.
  • ¬ Liaison between patient, family and ACHD team.
  • ¬ Direct support to ACHD team.
  • ¬ Facility, equipment and resource support for Adult Congenital Heart Disease Team in the RVH

Since meeting Clare, I then didn’t feel so alone anymore. I realised there were lots of young people out there like me and this fabulous charity was there to help in any way they could.

Just a few things Bravehearts did for me was:

  • ¬ paid me visits to keep me company when my family members could not make it,
  • ¬ relieved financial worries/bills as I was not able to work,
  • ¬ provided a TV/playstation unit where I could watch Netflix and keep my mind occupied
  • ¬ and also provided a small sofa bed so I could have someone stay with me on numerous occasions.

For me I really don’t know how I would have coped without the Bravehearts and their support throughout my journey. Everything they done for me was truly priceless.

Rehabilitation and moving forward…

In the following days, weeks and months from my surgery rehabilitation was crucial. After going through such invasive traumatic surgery, you feel like you are basically starting all over again, learning to walk properly and even breath properly again. When discharged from the hospital (BEST DAY EVER!!) I was under instruction to walk a short distance every day and to keep building on that every week and this would help build up my lungs, get rid of fluid in my body and work my muscles again.

Being as strong minded and stubborn as I am, two and a half months post-surgery I found myself walking a full lap around the Loughmacrory lough feeling stronger with every step. I did this for a few months and was feeling happy with my progress, stress relief with being able to exercise regularly again and just an overall positivity throughout my body and mind.

“I often would see runners pass by every day when I was walking and began to toy with the idea of the possibility of being able to safely run for the first time in over 10 years. It was safe to say once this idea was in my head I was determined to do it!”

So, in the next few months and now virtually pain free, my partner Eamon (who is a personal trainer) began training me in the gym to build up my strength and slowly started to introduce running. With Eamon’s mum, Anne Logue, being a committee member for the lough 5 run, I set myself my biggest challenge to date.

Holly Gibson will be running the Lough5 to raise funds for BraveheartsNI, having undergone open heart surgery earlier this year

Tell us bout your Challenge and about the Lough 5 Run…

I aim to complete the Lough 5 which is a 5 mile route around Loughmacrory on New Year’s Eve to raise money for the Bravehearts N.I. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to now contribute back to the charity which is helping so many others that are in a similar position to what I was and in many cases a lot worse.

It is somewhat a dream come true to be finally able to run and at the same time do something worthwhile for others.

I don’t think there is a better way to end, what has been the hardest year of my life, than accomplishing this run and doing it for every other man, woman and child that has been affected by Congenital Heart Disease.

I would just like to ask family, friends, strangers and everyone in-between, if you could spare a few hours of your time to come up to Loughmacrory on 31st December to take part in the Run or Walk in supporting me for this worthwhile cause.

Lough 5 New Year’s Eve Run and Walk

After all, I’m going to need a whole lot of cheering to get me over that line after 5mile!!!

Inspirational words…

To finish, I just want to add 3 things I’ve learnt through my journey this year:

Nothings impossible if you put your mind to it

Tough challenges will arise, but it’s how you deal with them turning them into a positive moving forward, that shapes your true character

And most of all you only get one chance at life, so do what makes you happy     and make every day count.

As we said at the beginning of this feature, you must surely be impressed and inspired by the latest of our young ‘People in focus’ Profilees. Great words indeed and a terrific challenge as part of a ‘Journey of Recovery’ for Holly.

At Tyrone Life we wish Holly all the best in this challenge and to all who are supporting her on her quest to raise funds for the Bravehearts Charity – you can do so on Holly’s just Giving Page here…

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