James' open heart surgery



James is competitive. He will take you down in monopoly, temping bowling, a spelling bee, a game of pool or basketball. Even if you’re his seven year old step daughter…

While playing competition sport he ended up in emergency with chest pain, twice. On two separate occasions he was sent home from emergency and told ‘You’re young and fit, it’s just stress’. On the third occasion he was sent home from hospital with a machine to check his blood pressure over 24 hours, which showed numbers really high over really low. He was told he was incredibly fit and healthy. 

He had decided to run a marathon (42km) - to take his close friend Dhiraj down. He had never run a marathon and started training by running a half marathon. He arrived home and ran a freezing cold bath, I honestly thought he was going to die... and he so easily could have! 

In 2013 we built our dream home, I dragged James along to the Melbourne Spa and Pool Show. I wanted to win a spa (we never did win that spa).
It was here we were approached by a lady from channel 7, scouting for an unnamed renovation show. (later to be named House Rules)
We were the perfect candidates, we had a home that was in need of renovations, James is competitive, full of enthusiasm, while I have the ability to fluff around and spend money. We made it through to the final selection round and were asked to visit our GP for a general health check.

James completed the health checklist form and ticked all the boxes to state he was healthy. When he presented this to the GP he was told he could not tick the box stating he did not have a heart condition. The doctor took one listen to James’ heart and could tell there was something wrong. 
A normal heart beats boom - boom, boom - boom. James’ heart made a boom - choo, boom - choo sound. He also noted James’ really high over really low blood pressure as it is a direct symptom. He was referred to a specialist immediately and our renovation show days went from three months on House Rules to ten minutes on Better Homes and Gardens.

After seeing a cardiologist James was informed, since birth his heart had severe aortic regurgitation. Meaning his aortic valve didn’t close after his heart would pump blood around his body, instead half would be sucked back in to his heart. His heart was working twice as hard to pump blood around his body and because of this his heart had enlarged to a dangerous size. 

He could have easily been one of those guys that drops dead on the sporting field for no apparent reason. They were surprised he was still alive and until he had open heart surgery to fix the condition the doctors advised him he was not allowed to walk up a hill, so defeating Dhiraj in the Melbourne marathon was out! 

Our private health insurance didn’t cover heart conditions as James was young and fit, meaning it would have cost over $60,000.
Financially we decided to wait and go through the public system. Due to the seriousness, James didn’t have to wait long. 

The night before his surgery, I remember laying with my ear against his chest listening to the boom - choo, boom - choo. Holding my boyfriend, who didn’t sleep a wink. 


James’ parents Lyn and Enzo, his sister and I put on our ‘brave’ faces and tried to joke about the entire situation. When he was wheeled off in his hospital gown we casually said ‘See you soon’. The moment he was out of sight, his family and I collapsed the the ground, crying tears at the uncertainty of James’ future and that we had acted so casually, while he was (probably) incredibly scared. 

His chest was cut open through his sternum and ribs separated. Two large drainage tubes were inserted at the base of his ribs. He was connected to a machine that kept him breathing and his heart beating for several hours, whilst his body was cooled to stop his heart. Surgeon Mr Peter Skillington, a name our family will never forget, performed the Ross Procedure on James. Taking his non-working aortic valve out, replacing it with James’ pulmonary valve and using a donor valve to replace James’ pulmonary valve.

I’ve always been a massive advocate for organ donating and this is the reason why! 

After what felt like an eternity James was stitched up and we were able to go in and view James in intensive care. I will never forget the machines, the sounds, the stillness, the smell. The feeling of helplessness. My mantra was sometimes even perfect people need to be fixed so they can stay perfect for longer. 

His firsts words when he woke up were really difficult to hear as he had large tubes in his throat and his lungs were collapsed… But he managed to utter the words “F**k… Who thought this was a good idea?”. It is incredibly rare for James to swear, so I guess he was in pain…


The severity of the situation sunk in watching him in intensive care. His beautiful family and I took turns in visiting him, but never left the ICU waiting room. Difficult days as James lay in excruciating pain passed and he was moved to the cardiac wing of the hospital. Where everyone going through anything similar seemed to be in their 70’s. James vomited from the pain medication, which (with a sore chest) caused more pain. He started joking that the catheter was the most painful part. Small laughs caused more pain. The time quickly came for him to get up and walk. I will never forget watching my 27 year old boyfriend in his hospital gown, socks and walking frame taking his first very painful steps after surgery. I was so proud and imagined our later years hobbling around the nursing home together.

The recovery time was around six weeks, at which time he attended rehabilitation classes. James would brag about ‘smashing the class’ as he would lap past the elderly men in the walking circle. I knew at that moment that I wanted to marry him and make babies. 

Five years later we have celebrated our marriage, had two babies, had his annual check up and has been informed all is perfect. Most days we forget what he has been through. The kids jump all over his chest…. He has the rare scare, but overall this experience has left us all full of gratitude, thankful to channel 7 for randomly selecting us from a crowd and honored to have met such an incredible surgeon. We’re now living our best life! 

*** I never did take any photos while he was in intensive care, the one photo I have of him in hospital is a the Royal Woman’s hospital when he felt chest pains after learning there was a 10% chance our unborn baby could have the same condition.

PS how lovely were James’ wedding vows!

The last six years have been an amazing journey. 

You've allowed me to realise what love is.

That special feeling in my heart, 

And I have it, even when it was falling apart.

All it took was a valve replacement, 

To ensure our love could continue without displacement.

I promise to continue to love and care for you and Mia,

To be the best husband and father I can be, as we continue to be a family together. 

I will be there to laugh with you when things are great. 

And be there to support you when you are in a state. 

I love that you are an honest, caring and thoughtful person and have brought continuing happiness into my life, 

So now I wish for you to be my wife. 

Rhianna Bruscella