Former Daily Mercury sports editor and table tennis player Charlie Payne, who has a lifetime of surgical scars from major open-heart operations.
Former Daily Mercury sports editor and table tennis player Charlie Payne, who has a lifetime of surgical scars from major open-heart operations.

Beyond the scars: Working hard for a healthy heart

ANYONE who knows Charlie Payne knows he has a big heart, especially when it comes to local sport.

But few are aware the retired Daily Mercury sports editor also has a lifetime of surgical scars from major open-heart operations.

Charlie, now 66, is believed to be the oldest survivor of a hole in the heart (Fallots Tetralogy), at least in Queensland.

It is a condition in which the chambers of the heart are not fully formed at birth, preventing the proper circulation of blood to the lungs, and in 1953 when Charlie was born there was no cure.

Charlie had his first operation at the age of nine and recalls he was more excited about taking his first aeroplane ride and flying to Melbourne than being concerned about his upcoming surgery.

"It was my first trip in a plane and my mum dressed me up for Melbourne weather, it was about 5C in Melbourne and about 30 degrees in Mackay," he laughed.

"And here I am with a beanie, gloves, long shirt, long pants and a jumper already for Melbourne here in Mackay."

 

Former Daily Mercury sports editor and table tennis player Charlie Payne, who has a lifetime of surgical scars from major open-heart operations.
Former Daily Mercury sports editor and table tennis player Charlie Payne, who has a lifetime of surgical scars from major open-heart operations.

Charlie now has had four open-heart operations - an ablation, a heart valve replacement and bypasses and has recently had a defibrillator implanted. Much of the surgery was done at Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane.

"They've got a huge file on me at Prince Charles, it must be six inches thick," he said.

Charlie believes the key to coming back from setbacks such as major surgery is a positive attitude, a willingness to take the extra steps to rebuild health, and a support network involving family, friends and the many medical specialists who have played their part over the years.

He said playing a sport and keeping active were big steps to maintaining good health for anybody, from children to adults.

"Just after my first operation at Royal Melbourne Children's Hospital in 1962, when I was 10, my mum took me to a 'come and try' night for table tennis," he said.

"I had never tried a sport before, in fact I was watched over and kept pretty much on the sidelines so that I didn't get involved in sports. Spoiled rotten, my sisters and brothers said."

"I watched a match between Roy McLean and Ernie Patterson, two legends of the game in Mackay, and I was hooked. For a long time, I could barely hit the ball, but I've played it for more than 50 years now."

 

This is the third story in Daily Mercury photographer Tony Martin’s Life Beyond the Scars series.
This is the third story in Daily Mercury photographer Tony Martin’s Life Beyond the Scars series.

 

"If you can get interested in a sport which is non-contact but challenging and stimulating, which you can play from childhood through to adulthood, you're ahead of the game."

"Even if your game is something full contact like football, you can still keep actively involved through things like coaching or other sidelines support."

Charlie said walking was a key activity for rebuilding and maintaining good health.

"Dr Mark O'Brien is a legendary surgeon who did my operations at Prince Charles in 1975 and 1985. He always stressed the need to get up and walk, and then walk a bit more."

He believes it was this advice that helped him return to work in four weeks after one operation.

"It doesn't matter if you can only walk a few paces to start off, you can always build on that. I like walking on the beach, so after my 1975 op I took myself to the harbour each day and soon I was able to walk about 2km along the beach to the mouth of the river."

Charlie said he had a vast network of 'guardian angels' to thank for his continuing health.

"My wife Rhonda would have to be the first of these, but there are many others."

Rhonda, who has seen Charlie go through all his operations since 1975, said it could be worrying but having a sense of humour had helped.

"He retired from work for the last operation. That was pretty emotional for both of us because we knew what he was going to go through (and) he was giving up work, which he loved, and that was tough on him and also me."

Rhonda said it was always a waiting game when it came to the heart operations.

"His last operation was seven hours, so that was stressful, but my sister who was waiting with me said, 'Don't worry Rhonda, if he was dead, by now you'd know about it' and that made me laugh and ease some stress."

 

Charlie Payne has a lifetime of surgical scars from major open-heart operations.
Charlie Payne has a lifetime of surgical scars from major open-heart operations.

Rhonda said Charlie put a lot of hard work into being healthy.

"For what Charlie has gone through, having a life expectancy of 21 and he's now 66, he's always exercised and eaten the right type of things and always been focused on a healthy lifestyle, and I think that's what has saved him. I'm just thankful he's still here."

Charlie says he can't agree when he hears people "mouthing off" about the public and private health system.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's up there with the best in the world, and I've been lucky enough to have some of our top surgeons on the job."

"My surgeon in 1962, when I was nine, was Dr George Westlake, who was the first paediatric cardiac surgeon at Royal Melbourne Children's Hospital, and he did what really was a lifesaving operation.

"The hospital's history states that children's cardiac surgery was highly experimental at the time and that the mortality rate was high, and it would have been dispiriting work. Dr Westlake quit children's surgery soon after, but I was lucky enough to have him operate on me.

"Dr Westlake's operation was called a Pott's anastomosis, which created a shunt to bypass the hole in the heart, and it was my first surgical scar, underneath my left shoulder."

Charlie said the operations in 1975 and 1985 (by Dr Mark O'Brien) and by Dr Doug Wall in 2015 at the Holy Spirit Hospital, went through the chest and were all open-heart, which was not possible in 1962 when Dr Westlake did the first operation.

"I used to joke that they had a zipper to open me up, because you can only see the one scar on my chest. By comparison the scar for the defibrillator inserted last year by Dr Haris Haqqani at Prince Charles is tiny, you can hardly see it."

Prince Charles Hospital Adult Congenital Heart Disease Specialist Dr Vishva Wijeskera has been guiding Charlie since his 2015 operation.



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