I’ve been writing about Black men and boys a lot.
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To reach that next birthday
When Travis Meade walked into his surprise birthday party two weeks ago, his family, girlfriend and colleagues would have breathed a silent prayer of thanks that he was able to live to see 24.
Because that might have been uncertain at another time in his life.
Meade, who carried a ticking “time bomb” of sorts in his chest since childhood due to leaking heart valves, is among “graduates” of the Ministry of Health’s Open Heart Surgery (OHS) programme—such as Damian Pacheco and Damian Jackson—whose lives have been improved by surgery.
Pacheco, at 38, was forced to curtail normal activities due to valve issues for which he’d already had surgery in the US. Jackson, also in his 30s, suffered problems—causing his heart to “stretch.”
Any visit to the busy Port-of-Spain General Hospital (POSGH) will help you discover such stories—literally wandering the corridor—since the OHS’ success rate, is a low profile, but proud record for health, boosting T&T’s stocks in this area of health sector development.
Open-heart surgery had in previous years been routinely associated with older patients and coronary disease, stemming from T&T’s biggest non-communicable problem—diabetes. But now, an increasing number of young patients at a financially-productive time of their lives, seem to be requiring such surgery. Meade and others are among younger patients who’ve undergone particularly unusual, complicated surgeries for life-threatening situations.
The tall, Palo Seco electrician and air-condition technician had been living the normal life of a 20-something-year-old—working, studying, swimming, sports—until a couple years ago.
Focusing on studies, he suddenly developed a persistent cough and lost almost half his weight in 2013.
Meade recalled: “I went to the health centre and they said I had to go to hospital immediately as they couldn’t handle what was wrong with me. When I went to San Fernando General, they informed me about my heart condition and leaking heart valves.
“I stayed in hospital for a month but they made clear I’d have to do surgery in order to live. I also researched the situation and I found I had no choice.”
Doctors told him the leaking valves caused severe aortic problems and Meade’s heart function supplying blood to his brain and the rest of his body was reduced at less than 40 per cent. He was referred to the MOH/OHS programme.
He says: “I was kinda nervous knowing the risk of surgery but I felt I’d reached so far with my efforts and even though it could be my last, I felt I had to go through with it. Me, my family, we all go to church and I told myself that anything is possible; you just have to believe it and everything will be alright,”
Comforted by that outlook, Meade went into the care of OHS doctors who undertook intricate surgery in which his dilated aorta and leaking valve were replaced last November at POSGH.
Amid tubes, wires, machines, medication and bustling health personnel, Meade carries one memory from the operation that will stay with him forever. He said: “It was weird...during the operation, even though I was unconscious I seemed aware my body was asleep.
“Then I had a sensation of climbing over something and I became aware of...a man it seemed, though I could only sense his foot, then a clear sense of hearing someone say they were ‘not ready for me yet’. Then at the same time I got a smell...a nice one. The only way I can describe it, is like, a ‘rare’ scent.
“Then I had a sense of ‘coming back.’ At that moment I started awakening from surgery and coughing,”
Meade recalls no pain, only dizziness. Crossing hurdles one by one, the recovery road in post-operative care also saw an act of love from his devoted mother, father and doting girlfriend Merkesha Alleyne who travelled daily from Palo Seco to sit beside him, pray and talk Meade through his recuperation for weeks, until back on his feet.
As one of the youngest patients undergoing complex surgery, Meade says: “I’d have visitors every hour—doctors, nurses, medics up to 9 pm, many questions.”
Discharged in December, Meade toted home a pillow which all the medical personnel signed.
Now progressed beyond initial restrictions, Meade is back to sleeping in his favourite position—his side. Scars are fading. His face has filled out. No more shortness of breath,.
He’s working lightly, exercising a bit, doing his check-ups religiously. And planning life with his girl, again. Doctors say he’s made a full recovery.
At his birthday party, Meade said his parents and brother finally filled him in on the details of what he’d gone through at hospital.
“It was only after the operation I realised something.
“When I was working, we’d wired a San Fernando building and after I’d always wondered what that particular building was to be used for. It turned out it had been used by the same doctors who did my operation. We never knew each other, but our roads later crossed—and their work saved me.”