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The man least likely: How heart problems caught Mark off guard

When you think of a heart surgery patient, someone who lives a healthy lifestyle, has no symptoms and does daily exercise including a mix of yoga, walking, swimming and surfing isn’t the first candidate to spring to mind. But that’s exactly what happened in the case of Mark Ludbrooke, a 62-year-old Bokarina, Sunshine Coast local, who last year had a shock diagnosis of aortic stenosis (a type of heart valve disease), requiring surgery to replace his calcified aortic valve. “I’ve always considered myself active and generally speaking I felt good and had plenty of energy, so when I got the diagnosis, I was taken aback,” says Mark.

The diagnosis came about after Mark’s GP was concerned that his cholesterol (which had been elevated since he was around 40 years old) wasn’t sufficiently responding to medication. He was referred to Heart HQ, a comprehensive cardiology practice on the Sunshine Coast, for a series of cardiovascular tests. “They did a number of tests including a calcium score and X-rays, and what they found was a heavily calcified aortic valve that wasn’t letting blood through as normal,” says Mark. “The cardiologist said to me that had I not presented when I did, there was a fair chance I would’ve had a heart attack this year.”

Aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve opening that restricts blood flow from the left ventricle to the aorta, typically affects older people due to scarring and calcium build-up in the valve cusp over time, and can sometimes lead to problems like heart failure. As Mark was relatively young to be diagnosed, it’s possible his condition came about due to a lifelong heart murmur and also the fact that he was born with a bicuspid aortic valve (with two cusps instead of the typical three), which may have led to early calcification.

While some people (including Mark) don’t have any symptoms of aortic stenosis, others might have palpitations, fainting during exercise, chest pain, shortness of breath or fatigue. Aortic stenosis typically progresses slowly for years without symptoms, until around the age of 70 onwards, when symptoms may begin. An estimated 254,000 Australians are currently living with undiagnosed heart valve disease, while more broadly speaking, 90% of Australians have at least one risk factor for heart disease.

Thankfully, Mark’s timely diagnosis led to prompt treatment by the specialists at Heart HQ – through a minimally invasive procedure known as TAVI (Transcatheter Aortic Valve Implantation), which involves an artificial valve being implanted into the heart. “I was back driving, doing yoga and some basic cardio four weeks after the procedure, and now I’m 10 or 12 weeks post-procedure I’m pretty much back to normal,” says Mark. “I do yoga four times a week, and the other days I’m either swimming, walking, or having the odd surf.”

For Mark, his health scare hasn’t changed his lifestyle much: he says it’s ‘business as usual’, trying to keep moving, stay flexible and keep the weight off. His advice for others? “Even if you’re feeling good, get your heart checked,” he encourages. “My GP’s recommendation that I have some further tests probably saved my life.” If you’re 45 years and over (or 30 years and over for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples), ask your GP about a Heart Health Check today.  

Words by Bonnie Bayley