'Cuddling my husband saved his life'

As Louise Royle lay in bed with her husband, she put her head on his chest, as she did every night.

But on this occasion, Louise, 40, noticed something that terrified her. ‘I could hear his heart beating, but it was faster than usual,’ she explains. ‘The rhythm kept skipping beats.’

As a veterinary nurse of 20 years, Louise knew how dangerous an abnormal heartbeat can be. ‘I didn’t sleep much,’ she says. ‘I was worried he was going to die in the night.’

It was this small act of love between the couple that led to Louise’s husband, Will, 39, being diagnosed with a life-threatening heart defect.

He went onto have a six-hour open-heart surgery to replace his aortic valve – the valve which controls the flow of blood out from the heart to the rest of the body.

Now, Louise says Will is ‘like a new man’, and she’s taking part in the British Heart Foundation’s London to Brighton Off Road Bike Ride, to raise funds for life-saving research.

Louise and Will met as teenagers at school, where they dated for 18 months, before getting back together eight years later. An active couple, the pair enjoyed walks in the countryside and were members of their local archery club. Will’s health issues began, out of the blue, in January 2018.

Liz, who lives in Peterborough, explains: ‘Will was working in the military. He’d been really fit and healthy and there weren’t any warning signs.’

But one morning, Will ‘wasn’t feeling 100%’. Later that day, he had a seizure. 

‘I remember getting a call from his boss telling me he’d been found unconscious in his work van,’ says Liz. ‘They were asking me if he was epileptic or had a brain problem.

‘I drove straight to hospital was relieved to find Will conscious and talking, albeit very confused.’

Doctors gave Will an ECG and ultrasound but couldn’t find anything wrong. He then spent the following weeks tired and falling asleep at work before having a brain scan, which also came back as normal. 

It was one night, soon after, when Liz lay in bed with her husband and noticed his heart wasn’t beating as it should. ‘I said to Will how worried I was and he said he could feel it happening,’ she says. ‘Will said he wasn’t worried but I could tell he was trying to reassure me.’

The next day, the pair contacted the doctor. ‘They listened, agreed and started him on a 24 hour monitor the next day,’ says Liz.

Will was referred to a cardiologist who found he had a bicuspid aortic valve. It meant his aortic valve had two flaps, instead of the normal three, and because the valve wasn’t functioning normally, his heart had to work harder to pump blood to the rest of his body. Will would have been born with the condition, which had gone undetected.

‘After the diagnosis things moved quickly,’ says Liz. ‘In April 2018 he had open heart surgery where he was fitted with a mechanical valve to help ease the strain on his heart.’

The surgery took six hours, and all Liz could do was wait. ‘I was very nervous although knew he had to have the surgery,’ she says. ‘I waited in the waiting room of the hospital for six hours and was eventually allowed into the ICU.’

Thankfully, Will made a quick recovery and two weeks later he was back home. 

Louise said: ‘He felt like a new man and had so much more energy. He’d previously used to get tired a lot, not out of breath, but quite lethargic, but now he had so much more energy and felt as if everything was back to normal. The procedure hasn’t stopped him in his day to day life at all.’

And the pair didn’t realise that the new valve came with some interesting sound effects.

‘You can hear his valve clicking as his heart beats,’ Louise says. ‘We joke he now ticks like the crocodile in Peter Pan.

‘It’s incredible to think that things like this can be done – and without all the research the BHF helps fund, he may not be here today.’

Tragically, Louise and Will understand the loss of a loved one due to a heart condition. Just three years after Will’s scare, in 2021, his sister, Lisa, suffered a fatal cardiac arrest. She was just 39.  

Lisa had been staying in assisted housing after getting support for her mental health, when she collapsed. 

Louise said: ‘The people there called an ambulance and tried to do CPR, but there was no defibrillator available. They couldn’t save her. It was a huge shock to us all.’

Following the tragedy, Louise and her sister, Nicola, decided to start riding their bikes, challenging themselves to ride 1,000 miles for £1,000 to raise money for a defibrillator in Lisa’s memory. 

Wanting to do something more, this year, Louise, her sister, her mother-in-law, Jenny, and Will all took part in the BHF’s London to Brighton Bike Ride in June. And now, to challenge herself further, Louise will be taking part in the London to Brighton Off Road Bike Ride on Saturday 23 September.  

The challenge will see more than 2,000 cyclists come together to take on 61 miles of superb views and technical terrain as they all come together to raise money to help fund lifesaving research into heart and circulatory diseases. 

Louise said: ‘Everyone in the world has a heart and a heartbeat. Will’s heart condition scared us all, we got complacent and then what happened with Lisa scared us again. It’s so important to raise awareness of the important work the BHF helps fund. What they do is amazing, and Will wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.’

Roisin Greenup, Senior Events Manager at the BHF, added: ‘It’s fantastic to see Louise’s passion and determination in helping us fund lifesaving research.    

‘Without the dedication of our cyclists and the commitment of fundraisers like her, we wouldn’t be able to fund research that has already broken new ground, revolutionised treatments and transformed the lives of millions of people in the UK.’ 

To sign up to take part in the London to Brighton Off Road Bike Ride visit the BHF website here. Or to sponsor Louise visit her JustGiving page here.

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