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Geoff was refereeing a basketball game before he was rushed in for open-heart surgery

One moment, 24-year-old economics graduate Geoff Lester was refereeing a social basketball game in Brisbane with friends while making plans to move to London to become a banker.

Two hours later, he was going under the knife for 12 hours of open-heart surgery to fix a catastrophic aortic dissection that could have killed him.

He nearly didn’t go to the hospital with the mild symptoms of dizziness he was experiencing — despite a tingly arm and feeling “a bit odd” he was young, fit and healthy.

But after dropping a friend home right next to a hospital, he went inside for some reassurance.

As he arrived at the triage desk, he collapsed with a pain “that felt like I was being torn in two”.

His aorta — the main artery that carries blood from the heart — had ruptured.

“If I’d just driven home instead … (I’d be) dead,” he reflected.

Only 50 per cent of people who experience aortic dissection will make it to hospital.

Of those who do make it, 25 per cent won’t survive, or if they do, they could have a number of non-functioning limbs or organs.

And from the onset of symptoms, with every passing hour, there is a two per cent increase in the risk of death.

He doesn’t just know these statistics because he was an attentive patient. Lester is now a trained cardiologist.

As he headed into his procedure, the surgeon about to start operating on him was at the end of a 12-hour shift. When he woke up, he resolved to make good on a deal he struck with himself.

“When you’re faced with death, you start bargaining: ‘Give me this chance, I promise I’ll use it’,” he said.

“Let me survive, and I promise I’ll do good in the world.”

Lester was still recovering in hospital when he asked his parents to bring in textbooks so he could study for the entrance exam to medical school with a “laser-like focus”.

“I needed to find out how this happened to me and I needed to help others who this might happen to and stop this happening to other people,” he said.

‘I don’t waste a moment’

Since 2009, Lester has been simultaneously training in cardiology and general medicine, with an aim to become one of Victoria’s only specialist cardiovascular and general physicians.

He recently collated Australian-first research into the prevalence and economic cost of this disease while completing his most recent master’s in public health.

And he has done this while also continuing to deal with his own health struggles— a second open-heart surgery 10 weeks after the first to deal with another rupture, two strokes, an infected heart valve and two more open-heart surgeries due to aneurysms of the coronary artery.

Just three weeks ago, he had holes drilled into his head to release pressure from a brain bleed. He’ll be back at work on Monday.

“I don’t waste a moment,” Lester explained.

“What good is it to anybody if I sit around and twiddle my thumbs? There’s the world to see, there are people to help, there’s more research to do, there’s more public awareness, there’s more advocacy, there’s more money to raise.

“It’s given me drive, it’s given me a purpose. Many people go through life, never finding their purpose … their reason to get up every day.

“It has taken away my life, but it’s given me back everything.”

Lester says part of the reason he suffered the aortic dissection is a genetic condition which leads to weak arteries that no one in his family knew about.

One of the silver linings of his experience is that it prompted his family members to get tested themselves, and it was then that his brother discovered he carried the same gene.

For Heart Week 2024, Australian Heart Foundation ambassador Lester has joined calls for people to get their ticker checked out to avoid the unthinkable happening to them or their loved ones.

More than 40,000 Australians die from cardiovascular disease each year, with nearly 600,000 hospitalised for it, the Heart Foundation says.

A recent survey it conducted on 1000 Australians between 45 and 74 found nearly half did not know their family history, despite it being a major risk factor for heart attack or stroke.

The first step people could take would be to use the Heart Foundation’s three-minute online test, which will calculate your heart age.

If it’s greater than a person’s actual age, it might be time to get a check-up.

A further heart health check isn’t complicated either. It’s a simple 20-minute consultation with “no scary machines or invasive procedures”, the foundation’s healthcare programs manager Natalie Raffoul says.

It involves inputting blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar levels, family history and lifestyle factors into a calculator that gives “the most accurate way to estimate cardiovascular risk in this country”.

“It’s the best way we can intervene early before people go on and have a heart event in the next five years,” Raffoul said.

Not getting the check is the most selfish thing you can do, says Lester.

“You put it off because it’s inconvenient for you, but it’s not you that has to wake up the next day without you” he said.

“So if you’re not going to bloody do it for yourself, then do it for your family, do it for the person you love.”

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