'Going from being young and fit to someone who was on the edge of death was a big shock'
Life was good for 29-year-old Stephen Curry - the father of one was young, fit and engaged to be married to the mother of his child. But six months ago he nearly lost it all after a crippling pain in his chest. An early diagnosis of aortic dissection - a potentially life-threatening tear in the aorta - and a nine-hour surgery saved his life. Stephen tells his story to Arlene Harris
At 29 years of age, Stephen Curry was young, fit and healthy. He and his partner, Chantelle, were engaged to be married and their family had already begun to grow with the arrival of their son Bradley (2) - life was good.
So when six months ago the father of one suddenly developed a crippling pain in his chest, he was surprised but didn't imagine that he was suffering from anything serious. But a trip to the hospital soon told a different story as he went from being a healthy young man to someone on the brink of death.
"One evening in June of last year, I got up to put the kettle on while Chantelle was putting Bradley to bed," he recalls. "As I was reaching for it, I suddenly got a crushing pain in my chest - it was so bad that I felt like someone was standing on me and I found it really difficult to breathe.
"I shouted for Chantelle and she came downstairs immediately and said she was going to call for help. She rang the local out-of-hours doctor but there was no reply, which, in hindsight, was a good thing as she then rang an ambulance which arrived in about 10 minutes."
While waiting for the emergency services to arrive, Stephen, who works for Wexford County Council, sat on a chair clutching his chest and, as the pain refused to subside, he began to get worried and thought that he might be having a heart attack. This was also the first thought of the paramedics who began treating him for the same.
"When the ambulance arrived, I had my blood pressure checked and an ECG showed something wasn't right so I was given an aspirin, which is good for thinning the blood as they thought I might be having a heart attack," he says. "In actual fact, this was the worst thing I could have been given and the result could have been fatal, but, at this point, the paramedics didn't know what was wrong with me.
"I was taken to the local hospital, and, on the way, they continued doing tests on me. Then when I arrived at the hospital, I was seen by one doctor who called for a second opinion from a colleague who ordered a CT scan and this revealed that I was suffering from an Aortic Dissection Type A (a tear in the lining of the aorta) which is hard to diagnose because it often mimics a heart attack."
The situation was now very grave but while doctors updated Stephen's family, they kept the stark reality of the diagnosis from him as they didn't want stress to further aggravate his condition as he would need to remain calm while he awaited surgery.
"I didn't know what it meant to have an aortic dissection and doctors didn't enlighten me as they didn't want me to worry," he says. "When Chantelle and my dad came back into the room, they both looked like they had been tearful but didn't say anything about it to me. I was just told that I had to be transferred to the Mater Hospital in Dublin and a doctor travelled with me in the ambulance, which should have alerted me to the seriousness of it all - but I was so out of it that I didn't really take in what was happening.
"I was taken straight to ICU and told that I had to have open-heart surgery immediately as without it I had less than 24 hours to live. This was a total shock and my father's reaction will always stick in my mind as he turned away and put his hands over his face. I was very scared, more about the general anaesthetic and being put to sleep than the surgery itself as I never thought I was going to die. But I did say my goodbyes and told my fiancée to make sure our son grew up knowing all about me if I didn't make it."
Fortunately, Stephen survived the nine-hour operation and after 12 days in hospital was discharged.
Stephen with his wife Chantelle and two-year-old son Bradley
"When I woke up, I saw my mother, father and fiancée so knew that I had made it," he says. "I was incredibly relieved and also really groggy and kept falling asleep for 10 minutes or so - then when I woke up I would think a day had passed. I was in a lot of pain initially and had a very weird feeling in my chest as if it wasn't part of my body.
"After I was discharged, it took about three months for me to start feeling any better and to be able to sleep on my side. Before that, everything hurt, especially when I coughed or sneezed. But I was determined to get better, slowly but surely."
Indeed while he was still in recuperation, Stephen and Chantelle went ahead with the wedding they had been planning before he became sick.
"We got married six weeks after I had my operation," says the Enniscorthy man. "It might seem mad, but we had everything planned so we decided to go ahead with it as it would give us all something to look forward to and take our minds off everything we had been through.
"It was a lovely day and a great distraction from what had been going on. I was still a bit out of it, and, on several occasions, I found myself just sitting in the middle of it all, watching everything going on around me and taking it all in - I kept thinking that I nearly didn't make it and really appreciated the fact that I was there, on my wedding day, with all my family and friends around me."
Life has changed somewhat for Stephen, and, while he is now back on his feet, he is very wary about overdoing things but conscious that he needs to keep physically active, and, more importantly, address the mental issues which have undoubtedly arisen from this life-changing experience.
"I am doing fine now physically - but it did take me a while to get up on my feet and out and about," he says. "I went on a cardio rehabilitation programme and I do intend to join the gym, but I am still a little nervous of putting any strain on my heart. I do a bit of walking mainly to keep myself sane and sometimes I get very out of breath as I am still recovering, but, apart from that, I have no other physical side-effects - so everything is fine in that sense.
"But I do have issues with the mental side of things and have been seeing a counsellor who diagnosed me with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - going from being a fit 29-year-old to someone who was on the edge of death was a very big shock and will take some getting used to.
"I would advise anyone else who is at the start of a journey like mine to ask as many questions as possible. I didn't ask anything as I didn't want to know at the time because it made me nervous. But now I do want to know certain things and often need reassurance over aspects I feel anxious about.
"I recently found a group online and on Facebook called Aortic Dissection Buddies UK/Ireland - this has been great as it has really helped me with answers and the knowledge that I am not alone. So it is important to get as much information and support as possible, and, aside from that, try to be positive, as it is the best way forward."
For more information, check out materfoundation.ie and irishheart.ie
⬤ Aortic dissection (AD) occurs when an injury to the innermost layer of the aorta allows blood to flow between the layers of the aortic wall, forcing the layers apart.
⬤ In most cases, this is associated with a sudden onset of severe chest or back pain.
⬤ Symptoms depend on where the dissection starts and in the majority of cases include a sudden onset of severe pain, which is often described as feeling like a tearing or stabbing sensation.
⬤ Some people feel the pain spreading but it is usually confined to the aortic chest area.
⬤ Due to the nature and location of the pain, aortic dissection is often confused with heart attack. It can also be confused with a myocardial infarction if there is chest pain, especially as it can be associated with ECG changes, too.
⬤ Aortic dissection may occur due to a genetic condition associated with a weakened or enlarged aorta and in some cases chronic high blood pressure may stress the aortic tissue, making it more susceptible to tearing. There are other causes of dissection in addition to congenital causes, such as that associated with a bicuspid aortic valve, Marfan syndrome. It is also associated with high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and can occur following trauma, for example, during an RTA etc.