ANYONE who has stood at the top of Seana Bhraigh will likely regard the long trek to this remote and stately Munro as one of their most memorable hill outings.
Reaching that summit cairn on a warm, sunny day on August 20, 2020, was especially memorable for Steve Wilson. Just 16 weeks earlier, Steve had undergone heart bypass surgery.
His experience is a salutary one. A fit, regular mountain walker with a reasonably healthy lifestyle, Steve thought he was suffering from indigestion when the reality was much worse. However, that same lifestyle has helped him make a fast recovery.
The first signs that something wasn't right started at the end of 2019 when he found himself struggling more on hill walks. The discomfort came to a head the following April, the day after his 63rdbirthday. He had been suffering from indigestion or heartburn on and off for around three weeks, and after a particularly bad morning, his doctor had him call an ambulance in case he had been having a heart attack.
An initial exam and cardiogram had paramedics convinced it wasn't a heart issue. He appeared well, had no obvious symptoms and was not a prime candidate for an attack: he wasn't overweight, had never smoked and had no history of heart problems. As a precaution, it was decided he should go to hospital for further checks. It came as a shock 24 hours later to be told he had suffered a heart attack. What he had thought was heartburn turned out to be angina.
The good news was that there appeared to be little damage to the heart. The bad news was that he was diagnosed with chronic coronary disease. Stents were not an option due to the problems being at junctions – he needed a bypass operation as soon as possible. This was at the start of the Covid crisis when protective equipment, intensive care beds and ventilators were in short supply and there was great uncertainty and concern about the full effects of the pandemic. But five days later, his operation went ahead.
Six grafts were needed. The early stages of recovery were not easy, very frustrating for someone used to being so active, but he was reminded that his body had undergone a 'brutal' surgery and time was the key to a full recovery.
About a week later, he was taking the first tentative steps. Six weeks later, he was more mobile but walking was still limited. Day by day distance and speed increased along with cardiovascular fitness. After 12 weeks, he was back on the hills, drawing confidence from a wander up Mayar in the Angus glens.
It was time to turn his attention again to the Munros he had left to complete and the trip to Seana Bhraigh was planned with a friend. They approached from the north, cycling up Strath Mulzie before making their ascent.
I know Steve from occasional club meets, and in November 2020 I bumped into him and his pal at the top of Duchray Hill. He was moving comfortably and at a good pace, no sign that he had been through such an ordeal. Like so many meetings since the end of restrictions, it came a shock to find how much time had moved on in the intervening limbo, how much we had missed.
Since then, he has managed to do the challenging Fisherfield round, Maoile Lunndaidh, the Coire Lair Munros and Liathach, among others. He has around 20 left to 'compleat' and the only thing that's held him back from an earlier finish has been the Scottish weather. He has made an excellent recovery and should be free of heart problems for years to come.
The experience has led to small changes in his approach to the mountains. Understandably, the days of lone expeditions are fewer – he prefers to walk in company, especially where there's scrambling involved.
When he's out in the hills, he carries a small GTN (glyceryl trinitrate) spray in case of an angina attack. He also has 75mg dispersible aspirin tablets with him at all times. Chewing four quickly – without water at first – helps thin the blood. These should be an essential in every hillwalker's first aid kit, useful also if you come across someone experiencing problems.
Steve was keen to get the message out that anyone with even the mildest chest pains should get them checked out. Don't assume it is heartburn or some other minor ailment. If you ignore the symptoms you might not be as lucky.
Equally, he wanted to show that there is hope that you can fully recover from such a traumatic event and get back to enjoying the hills.