It’s what’s inside that counts – Glass meets author Guy Heywood

WHEN you first meet Guy Heywood, you wouldn’t think there was anything particularly unusual about him. Alarmingly perfect teeth perhaps, but that aside, he’s a normal 32-year-old, who, rather enviably, looks like he might have recently been on holiday courtesy of the tan he’s sporting.

 

Guy Heywood by Imogen YeomanAuthor Guy Heywood. Photograph: Imogen Yeoman

What’s a little harder to see under the serene calm and wicked smile as we have coffee near his London base in Hackney, is the eight-inch scar on his chest that testifies to the life-saving open heart surgery he underwent two years ago. At the age of 29, as he trained for a white collar boxing match, Guy was diagnosed with a heart defect that had gone undetected since birth, slowly but surely ticking closer to a critically dangerous point until his heart had become so enlarged with the strain, that he was at risk of dropping down dead at any moment.  As his surgeon put it, “You know how you hear about young people dropping down dead suddenly?  This is why.”

The warning signs had been subtle and the surgery had no guarantee of survival, but it wasn’t as simple as being told he needed an operation and bowing to the greater knowledge of his surgeon. Along with it came the added complication of a choice between the surgery he could have, a choice which would impact the rest of his life, however long that may be.

In short, there was a valve in his heart that was missing a piece – commonly known as a couplet or flap. Normally you would have three but he had two, which had been working hard to compensate over the course of his life. By the time he was 29, they had just about had enough and had stopped working properly, letting blood flow back into the heart where it should only have been flowing one way, and resulting in the heart growing to a dangerously large size.

 

Guy Heywood by Imogen YeomanAuthor Guy Heywood. Photograph: Imogen Yeoman

As a result, Guy needed a new valve, and he had to choose whether he wanted a mechanical one or a tissue one, both of which had their pros and cons. On the one hand, a titanium mechanical valve would outlive him, meaning he would never have to undergo the extreme surgery he was about to face again. However, it would mean a lifetime on Warfarin to prevent the blood clotting around the titanium, which in itself had life-limiting implications.

On the other hand, assuming he survived the surgery, the tissue valve (from a pig or cow), would allow him to go back to a “normal” life after recovery (which would take the best part of a year), but it would eventually wear out and he would face the surgery again with less chance of survival. The amount of time the valve would last is estimated at anywhere between three and 30 years. You can see the dilemma. As Guy says, “It was all based on what life would be like after the operation, which obviously I had no way of knowing. But for me it came down to being a choice between quality and quantity of life.”

Guy Heywood by Imogen YeomanGuy after surgery. Photograph: Imogen Yeoman

Two years later and Guy is fit, healthy and living life to the full … in fact he’s the fittest he has ever been, saying, “I feel better now than I have ever done in my life, and I notice a real difference between how I felt before the operation and how I feel now that I am fully recovered. I know I have a new spring in my step, for which I am very grateful.” He splits his time between London and his native Devon, and is starting to share his story and speak about his experiences in a bid to help others.

With a new sense of life, he has written his story Free to Choose and published it online with the aim of helping other people come to terms with personal choices and circumstances. Having self-published the book online in order to make it as accessible as possible, his drive comes from having felt that there wasn’t enough support or information around at the time both because the operation is one associated with people far beyond his own years, and also for someone who wanted to think independently about the choices they have to make.

Free To Choose

The front cover of Free To Choose

For his own part, Guy found a combination of things to be the key to coming to a decision for himself, even though he felt that it was perhaps a choice that went against medical advice, “I felt mentally very strong throughout the whole period, and I think a lot of that was down to self reflection, meditation and a general sense of acceptance of what was happening. I am hoping that by sharing my story it will help people with difficult decisions to make or anyone who’s going through a hard time,” he says. “I felt at the time that there wasn’t enough support on all levels, and there were questions I couldn’t get answers for. It all comes down to personal choices, which you are at complete liberty to make.”

Guy Heywood by Imogen Yeoman Guy Heywood. Photograph: Imogen Yeoman

What’s charming about the story however, is Guy’s perspective on what happened to him. Contrary to your standard overcoming the odds story, his isn’t one of triumphing over disaster, and living a happy life in spite of the situation. His is a story of someone who has chosen to see what happened to him as a vital part of the fabric of life, and with a smile that exudes positive energy he says,“I want to show people that sometimes what seems like a dreadful situation can actually lead you to a much better place. For the first time in my life I have a fully functioning heart and although it wasn’t an easy situation for me or my family, in some ways it was a relief to finally understand why I was always that little bit more tired than everyone else – so many things made sense all of a sudden. Now, on the other side, my life is better than it’s ever been.”

As we finish our coffee and he heads off, I ask him his plans for the afternoon, “Nothing much, a work-out in the park perhaps,” he answers. “So you can do that?” I ask naively, “exercise? I mean, it’s all fine?” He looks at me with a grin as broad as his face, a glint in his eye and without skipping a beat he says, “Of course. That’s what it was all about; making a choice so I can live my life the way I want to live it, however long it is.”

And he’s off. We’ll leave you to meditate on the choice he made.

by Caroline Simpson

Photographs: Imogen Yeoman

You can download Guy’s book Free to Choose for free here

Find Guy on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

He also has a Youtube channel