Online advice prepares patients for hospital, writes Dominique Herman

YOU see it all the time in hospitals. People don’t question – they let doc- tors do whatever they want to do,” says Greg Bertish, a 36- year-old survivor of two major heart surgeries. After years of on- line research and experience hook- ing up his own drips in hospital, be- ing an informed patient is an issue that has become increasingly im- portant to him, so much so that he set up after his first operation: to assist people going into surgeries, as well as their families “about what to ex- pect, do, feel, believe and generally

how to handle it all”.
“I certainly know more than general practitioners and I would go so far as to say I know alo tmore than cardiologists,” Bertish says. “The mood changes after hospital affect families and causes divorces, suicides. There is no research, no writing on it. There’s nothing to prepare the patient before or after.”

Bertish was misdiagnosed for years and during his lengthy re- peated stays in private hospitals, he said he would discover that incor- rect information had been written on his chart leading him not to re- ceive the drugs he was supposed to get; he was fed before an operation, not told that he would feel nauseous and not be able to speak when he came round after surgery. “Those kinds of things happen all the time.”

It all started in November 2001 when Bertish, a surf and adventure travel business owner, was diag- nosed with a problem with his aor- tic heart valve. It seemed some bac- teria had attacked the aortic valve and eaten it away. The aorta is the main artery running out of the heart and the valve stops blood from flowing back into the heart. More than 25% of the blood being pumped out of his heart was leak- ing back in and it appeared it had been leaking since birth. His heart had swollen to 30% bigger than nor- mal size.

In a 2002 issue of Men’s Health magazine, Bertish considered his attributes after being told he had “the most radical” heart murmur his doctor had ever heard. Male. 31 years old. Single. Non-smoker. “Al- most” vegetarian. Home owner. Part owner in a great travel com- pany. Surfer. Sailboarder. Lifesaver. Amazing friends and family. Healthy and fit.

That year, he underwent the Ross procedure (an operation which Arnold Schwarzenegger also had). Within eight days his heart was back to normal size and within two months he had gone back to his normal lifestyle. For two years there were no problems.

During this period Bertish won the Western Province Champs Life- saving gold medal for craft rescue in 2003, surfed big waves again and competed in the Cape Point Chal- lenge surf ski race in 2004. “Life was back to normal … or so I thought.

“In 2004, I started picking up nig- gling illnesses – bladder infections,

flu symptoms, and so on. No one knew what it was. After a year and a half of misdiagnosis by doctors, it was found that I had endocarditis (infection of the heart valves). The bacteria had attacked the pul- monary valve as well.

“Endocarditis is not that com- mon. My theory is these bacteria – unnamed, unknown and incurable – seem to have lingered. I went into hospital on to a drip for six weeks – two weeks as an inpatient and four as an outpatient, coming in twice a day for an hour at a time. This did not kill it.”

In November 2005, his aortic valve, which was “very stretched and shot”, was removed. “All was well again, and I recovered slowly, started getting into the surf again … then more symptoms showed in about May.”

That started a six-week course of oral drugs, followed by a month or so thereafter of feeling all right, and then the symptoms reappeared.

2nd open heart surgery op greg bertish

“It was decided to put me on some of the heaviest intravenous drugs known to man. I checked back into hospital in September 2006. They just pumped me every- day for six weeks with antibiotics.” The day before checking himself in, Bertish had gone surfing.

“It was an interesting experi- ment mentally – I just had to get through it. I went down to the hos- pital coffee shop, exercised in my room, I had my routine.”

He has had no symptoms since then and is now on oral antibiotics. Whether the antibiotics are holding it at bay or the six-week drug-fu- elled hospital stay finally kicked it is uncertain. But Bertish plans to

get off the drugs in September. The bacteria that attacked his heart are now thought to be some sort of uncultivable bacteria which cause endocarditis. “They’ve never been able to diagnose what I’ve got. It’s a no-name brand but when they figure it out, it better be called the

Bertish bacteria.”
Bertish, 36, is president of the

Clifton Lifesaving Club, has com- peted in SA Lifesaving Champs every year since 1998 (except 2002) and won a WP 2001 board rescue gold medal. In 2004, he paddled the Cape Point Challenge, a 56km ocean race, and started the Sharkspotters Organisation at Muizenberg, which is now active at five beaches in the Western Cape.

He has been in the jet ski safety and rescue team for the Red Bull Big Wave Africa for the past four years. He has surfed and tow surfed all the big waves around Cape Town, including nine-metre face waves at Sunset in Hawaii and Dun- geons Reef in Hout Bay. He visited Madagascar, Indonesia, Réunion, Mauritius, France, Switzerland, the US and Mozambique to surf, snow- board, kite surf and explore in the past five years.

He lives in Hout Bay and runs, cycles or surfs three times a week. The difference is that now when he surfs in the tropics he wears booties and a helmet, and he no longer surfs big waves for fear of cutting himself and getting infected.

Despite his doctors saying there are a lot of unknown bacteria in the ocean and it is a risk, for Bertish, not taking the plunge is out of the question. “That’s everything I live for. I’ve grown up in the ocean.”