A Heart to Heart

The first term at University is, (let’s face it), more about partying and drinking rather than lectures and studying; the infamous ‘Freshers’ Week’ no doubt resulting in many late nights, empty bottles and painful hangovers. Before you know it, lectures are finished for Christmas. First term is arguably when independence is initiated and we students learn how to cook pasta, but continuous nights out aren’t on the agenda for many young people. For those students with Congenital Heart Disease (CHD), a ‘typical’ Freshers’ Week could be fatal.

Young people with heart defects are rarely talked about; the words ‘heart disease’ may bring to mind middle aged men, and a need to ‘eat healthily, lose weight and exercise’. However, CHD is the UK’s most prominent birth defect: over 5000 babies are born with a heart problem annually and 500-1000 children develop a heart condition at some point after birth. The Children’s Heart Federation (CHF) is a national charity which supports young people with heart defects, many of whom will be students who are attempting to put their stigma as a heart sufferer to one side and experience university as an ‘average’ individual.

Ollie Baxter-Smith, a graduate of Media Production at the University of St. Mark and St John, has a rare metabolic illness called Barth Syndrome. It affects all the muscles in the body, including the heart, which resulted in a heart transplant as a baby. He explains ‘I suffer from rejection in the right artery, affecting general tiredness; I can barely walk 80 metres without feeling some sort of pain’. Exercise is challenging and even work is compromised: ‘every day when I get home I have to nap to recover, which has a massive impact on my social life’. Ollie’s student experience was brilliant , but Freshers’ drained him: I would sleep till early afternoon just to recuperate from the previous night, and the drinking doesn’t mix too well with the drugs I’m on for my condition .Throughout my course, I missed lectures, nights out, friend’s birthdays and big events such as our Halloween ball. Illness was a huge part of my university experience’.

Ollie’s university did a fantastic job in providing for his individual needs, and he says they ultimately made him the person that he is. ‘University teaches independence, how to adapt and to take advantage of all the time you get! Despite my condition, I got myself elected as head of media for the Student Union, and created a performing arts society: being ill for the majority of rehearsals didn’t stop me!’ Ollie is often keen to speak to people with heart problems applying to university and insists they have to go for it too! Do what I did and (try) to look after yourself and get yourself referred to a good doctor nearby, there is honestly nothing stopping you from having the best time ever. Just listen to your body!

Clearly, if an individual is determined enough, having a heart condition does not rule out going to university, but the stresses of student life are added to by the difficulties of socialising and studying alongside a heart defect. This said, things do seem to be improving; more knowledge and study options enabling sufferers to immerse themselves in university life are appearing. The majority of us are lucky enough for the day’s biggest concern to be which pub to go to, but for the small number of students who are balancing university life with a heart defect, there are much more pressing situations. Looks can be deceiving: for those with heart conditions, the problem lies far below the surface.

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