Tom Dunne: After being told I could be dead by now, it was great to get the all-clear

Kate Bush never sounded so sweet as when I listened to her after I began my recovery from heart surgery 
Tom Dunne: After being told I could be dead by now, it was great to get the all-clear

In 2018, Tom Dunne was told he had a 70% chance of dying within two years. Picture:  Debbie Hickey/Getty Images

This article was originally published online on February 8, 2021.

In the midst of much bad news – high numbers, vaccine delays - I shared a little good news last week. My heart surgeon had told me that my CT scan showed my heart to be 100% and unlikely to ever again need surgery. My delight was visible from space.

This same man had once told me that I had a 70% chance of dying within the next two years. That was October 13, 2018, one of three dates that are now forever etched in my memory.

I panicked. It was impossible to take in. I had been more concerned about trying to get fitter for a TV thing and do some Christmas gigs. “Don’t ignore any chest pains,” he’d pleaded.

I had never had chest pains but three days later I was in A&E. It was stress but the surgery was scheduled: November 14, date number two.

Those were probably the hardest days: telling work what was happening, cancelling gigs, quietly buying things for hospital without my girls suspecting, trying to decide what to tell them. We told them the night before and thought we handled it well but the eldest wasn’t buying it: “Is this our last night as a whole family?” she’d asked.

We had a quiet Indian lunch the next day. It wasn’t easy. What on earth would happen next? Eventually we had to finish and grabbing a bag I checked in. Filling in a form I put the name of my family doctor. The nurse steeled herself to give me yet more bad news: “You know he’s dead, Tom?” 

That night another nurse prepping me for surgery talked nonstop about Heaven 17. It was such a relief. He was going to see them in London and, comparing notes, it seemed he and I had been to many of the same gigs. I said I’d play a song for him, I just wasn’t sure when.

It was a routine medical in 2007 that had brought me here. I had gone there straight from the gym. I thought there must be a mistake. But a few weeks later a cardiologist confirmed I had a bicuspid aorta and would need surgery “someday”.

'Someday' was in no rush. A year later I had my second child. I was active and fit. Every year tests showed moderate stenosis, but no symptoms. I grew lax and missed two years. I only went back after threats from my wife. This time it wasn’t ‘moderate’ stenosis. This time it was ‘severe'.

On the morning of the surgery a doctor said to me: “I will bring you down safely, and I will bring you back safely.” Audrey shifted uncomfortably and we smiled. After that I remember meeting the anaesthetist and then nothing.

Then a nurse was offering me ice cream. “We’ve washed your hair,” she was saying cheerfully. “You’re going back on the ward today.” I drank a glass of water. It tasted like no water ever, fresh and cold. Helping me into a wheel chair she whispered, “You’ve been in the wars, Thomas.” And I had. It was now Wednesday. I’d been six days in ICU. My kidneys had failed and I had gained 10kg. I couldn’t walk and when I shaved the man looking back at me stopped me in my tracks: wounds, blood, stitches. I was a car crash.

But I was back and I knew that straight away. I was getting better, step by tiny step. I immediately tried walking and soon even learned to synchronise the heavy meds with listening to re-issues of Kate Bush. ‘Running Up That Hill’ never sounded so sweet.

One day when I was panicking a little, the doctor who had brought me to theatre looked at me and said, “Your heart is fixed. Whatever kills you, it won’t be your heart.”

 The third date was January 6, the follow up with the surgeon. My wife tried to coax him into telling me to wrap myself henceforth in cotton wool. He wasn’t buying it. He looked at her this time: “Tom can do anything he wants now.” 

I look back on those times with nothing but deep gratitude. People I had never met before looked after me and cared for me with incredible skill and tenderness. A man, who did Medicine in UCC (probably when I was touring), stopped my heart, fixed it, and told me to carry on.

And we are a whole family again. Phew!

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