Woman's chronic heart condition leads to love-life challenge: 'He thought I was dying'

Elle Pendrick, who had undergone three open heart surgeries by the time she was eight, had trouble explaining her health woes to previous partners.

Pendrick in hospital with her husband Adam (left) and the couple on their wedding day sitting on a bench (right).
After four open heart surgeries, Pendrick went through her fourth with the love of her husband, Adam. Source: Supplied

A 41-year-old Aussie woman, who'd undergone three open heart surgeries by the time she was eight, has opened up about dating while battling a lifelong and incurable chronic illness, revealing that one boyfriend had feared she was about to die. Elle Pendrick was born with complex congenital heart disease, but says she struggled to explain it to partners until she met her husband, Adam.

The Canberra woman's condition is part of a group of defects that occur when the heart doesn’t develop properly in the womb and affects the way the blood flows through the heart and rest of the body.

She was just a few days old when she was airlifted to Sydney for her first operation, which at the time only had a 40 per cent survival rate.

Elle Pendrick as a baby with her mum (left) and dad (right).
Elle Pendrink underwent her first open heart surgery at three days old. Source: Supplied

Since then, Pendrick has had to have a further four open heart procedures, including when she was six, eight, 21 and 33, while she had the support of her now-husband for the last.

“It’s a big decision in some ways to marry someone who has a lifelong and incurable chronic illness,” she told Yahoo News Australia, explaining that it's very likely she’ll need a sixth operation any day now.

“But in other ways,” she added, “you just crack on with life.”

After going through three surgeries as a child, Pendrick thought she was out of the woods by the time she reached adulthood.

“The fourth open heart operation when I was 21 was a rude shock to be honest, as I thought I was done with treatment and that I’d grown out of the heart disease I had as a kid or that it had been cured,” she said.

Pendrick as a young girl in a hospital bed (left and right).
Pendrick's second and third surgeries came when she was six and eight-years old. Source: Supplied

“I also struggled with explaining it to loved ones and getting through the whole process, and I found it quite an awful experience overall.”

Her battle to communicate what she was going through also extended to Pendrick's dating life in her 20s.

“I recall with one ex-boyfriend, I had explained my heart condition very poorly and it wasn’t until we were breaking up and I was moving home from overseas that he was like: ‘Oh, I wanted to spend as much time with you while you’re here as I know you’re going to pass away in a little while.’

“I’d done such a bad job explaining it that this poor bloke thought that I was gonna die in like the next six months. From then on, I needed to really think about how I was explaining this for dating, because it wasn’t okay for this poor bloke to go around thinking that his girlfriend was going to die.”

By the time Pendrick was ready to go under the knife for a fifth time when she was 33, everything was different.

She’d known that she was going to need another surgery, she knew what was coming, but this time around she had her partner Adam, who could understand her complex illness and care for her when she was too unwell to care for herself.

Pendrick, 21, and her mum in hospital (right) and Pendrick in hospital at 33 (right).
Pendrick had thought she'd grown out of her heart disease when she needed her fourth surgery at 21 (left, with her mum), and then again at 33. Source: Supplied

“When I met my gorgeous husband in my late 20s, we had the conversation very early on about what congenital heart disease looks like,” she said, adding that beyond the surgeries, day-to-day life can be filled with fatigue.

“Some days I’ll be really tired and won’t do much, and some days I have brain fog and I can’t think things through properly and I’m very vague.”

However, she said Adam has been “absolutely amazing”.

The couple, who met online, when they had both just moved to Canberra, married in January, 2015.

"I was pretty up front and explained that I had heart disease and would need more surgery. I knew myself pretty well and what my future with heart disease looked like so I really was honest. I have to admit that I completely underestimated how much caring a partner would need to do so didn't really outline that part of the deal well at all.

"Adam is incredibly supportive and understanding. He’s just fantastic. He was really open to what our life might look like together. But he saw the potential need to be a carer much clearer than I did.

"A few months in things were getting more serious and he asked really detailed questions to get a better grasp on what my condition meant for day-to-day life, and what kind of support would help the most. I’d never had anyone do that, so we had to work it out together."

“We’ve done some incredible travel, we’ve both gone along our career journeys, and we’ve got a fantastic life together. And most of the time it’s Elle and Adam together. It’s not Adam and Elle’s chronic illness.”

Pendrick (left) and Pendrick with the Heart Research Institute's Dr Carmine Gentle (right).
Pendrick is excited about the prosect of a new minimally invasive surgery which is being researched by the Heart Research Institute. Source: Supplied

While Pendrick is prepping herself for the news that she’ll soon need a sixth surgery — which will knock her out of action for six months — she’s hopeful that medical advances will be made before she does.

Scientists from the Heart Research Institute are currently developing a world-first alternative to heart transplants and open-heart surgeries by using lab-created patches, made from a patient’s own cells, to replace or repair damaged areas of the heart via keyhole surgery.

“It’s very futuristic to think that you could use your own stem cells to develop tissue that then could be inserted through a minimally invasive procedure to help people,” Pendrick said.

“To think that I might not need a sixth open heart surgery, and to take six months out of my life because I might be able to have this minimally invasive procedure, is just incredible.

“It would be a dream come true for so many of us.”

Until then, Pendrick, who started her own business, Adulting Well, to help other people with long-term chronic illnesses, is just getting on with things.

“While the sun shines,” she said, “you have to get out and live life to the fullest.”

Do you have a story tip? Email: newsroomau@yahoonews.com.

You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.