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Life-saving heart surgery offers Jo a new lease of life

Photos of Jo after her op and at the top of Snowdon

When Joanna Cavill was feeling fatigued, a walk to the shops took an hour instead of her usual twenty minutes. She was also falling asleep during online meetings, but later learned that she was, in fact, passing out.

Initially, her GP put this down to the post-viral effects of Covid, which she’d contracted early in the pandemic. However, tests later showed a shadow on her heart. It turned out that Jo, who works as a physiotherapist at Devon Partnership Trust, would need emergency surgery to remove a rare tumour called a myxoma. It was in her left atrium and was the size of a snooker ball.

She said: “I knew from my professional background that it couldn’t stay there and had to come out. I was transferred to Derriford by ambulance, and it felt like a real relief to get there.”

Arriving at Derriford, Jo was immediately put at ease by staff in the Cardiac wards who, in the days preceding her surgery, made sure that she was coping with the sudden news: “Clearbrook ward felt very calm, which helped with my mental state. There was one nurse who checked on me every hour and they really did keep an eye on my mental health and wellbeing”, she said.

As Jo lives alone, her support bubble throughout Covid had been her cousin and 10-year-old nephew. When she awoke from surgery, all she wanted to do was phone her nephew to let him know she was ok: “I was very insistent that my nurse, Andrew, called to let them know and I couldn’t settle until I knew that phone call had been made.

“Andrew was just lovely at passing on the message to my nephew that I was ok, and that I would see him soon. He had a very calming manner about him. I’m so grateful that he was able to talk to him because it could have so easily not been ok. My whole family said that everyone on Clearbrook was lovely, and that it was never a problem if any of them phoned to check on how I was doing.”

One day, in intensive care, as her nurse came around with the tea and coffee, Jo joked that she didn’t drink hot drinks but would love a Diet Coke. When her nurse went for her lunch, she came back with a bottle for her from the canteen.

Jo said: “It’s those little things that really do make a difference and mean a lot to you when you’re in an unfamiliar situation, a bit scared about if you’re going to get better, and with tubes and wires hanging out of you.

“The thought that she knew I’d have no way of paying her back – she’d bought it out of her own pocket, it felt massive that someone would do that for me.

“When I look back at my time in intensive care and people ask what it was like, it’s that bottle of Coke that I tell them about. The cardiologists and anaesthetists were all amazing, but the thing that stuck with me was that bottle. It was that little bit extra someone did for me. A year later, I still remember how that made me feel.”

As Jo recovered, she felt huge gratitude towards the NHS, “I just had to worry about getting well. I didn’t have to worry about selling my house or re-mortgaging to pay my medical bill, and I can’t imagine having that stress on top - I just had to worry about getting better.”

At 11 months post-op in June, Jo climbed Snowdown and tweeted us at University Hospitals Plymouth.

Jo's tweet thanking the team at Derriford

“The sense of achievement at how far I’d come was a really positive end to the year. The following day I went on the longest zip wire in Europe, something I probably wouldn’t have done the year before.

“I don’t think you appreciate your health until it’s gone. I think the surgery has changed how I look at things. Every day feels like a bonus of extra time that I shouldn’t have had. You’ve got to grab all opportunities with both hands because we all think that we’re going to live forever, but I’ve realised that I’m not, and I’m lucky to still be here.”

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