Warrnambool author's inspiration straight from the heart

WARRNAMBOOL’S Gerry Delwig knew something wasn’t right with his heart but ignored the signs.

It wasn’t until he collapsed and was rushed to Melbourne that he was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, which is a condition where the heart muscle becomes inflamed and enlarged. 

Because it is enlarged, the heart muscle is stretched and becomes weak, which means it can’t pump blood as fast as it should. If the muscle becomes too weak it can lead to heart failure.

About 18 months before he collapsed Mr Delwig, now 56, noticed he was tired all the time.

In 1991 he was managing a supermarket in Camperdown and working long hours. He put the weariness down to work, a stressful marriage and “life in general”.

“I let it go for 18 months and then one day got up to go to work and collapsed,” he said.

“They did three different tests from three different hospitals. That was OK, I stopped work for six months and got another job that was not so stressful.”

Mr Delwig said he thought that was the end of it and didn’t go back for regular check-ups.

“I just went back to my normal lifestyle doing what I normally did. Seven years later, things started to turn bad again.”

He was eventually taken to The Alfred hospital and told he would need a heart transplant.

“It felt like something massive just pushing down on your heart all the time and you could only get really, really short breaths.

“I just couldn’t get any air in. The doctors weren’t confident I would make it back.”

Mr Delwig was on the transplant waiting list for eight months before his body started to improve.

“The body has managed to fight back and that’s a lot to do with myself and lifestyle changes,” he said.

“Fluid was the main problem. There was fluid around my internal organs and they were drowning. 

“The first eight days they took 10 litres of fluid out of me and I lost 10 kilograms in eight days. I was put on a transplant list and then it was just a waiting game. 

“You’re waiting for someone to die, which is the sad aspect of it. That really hit me. That’s when you start to get your head around the emotional side and realise it’s pretty full-on.”

Since then Mr Delwig has done something he never thought possible: he wrote a book which takes readers into the world of chronic illness and its effects.

He said writing a book was one of the last things he thought he would ever do, having been bullied at school and disinterested in writing: “English wasn’t one of my good subjects at school and I hated doing book reports.”

But while waiting for a heart transplant he was sitting next to a woman who’d written about her experiences in the Second World War.

“I said I could write a book about this heart condition — I’ve had it for 10 years,” he said. 

“Three voices spoke up in unison and said ‘Why don’t you?’ Because they’d seen medical journals but they had not seen anything from the patient’s perspective.

“I thought, well, I do have a lot of time on my hands. But there is something to be said because health affects everyone.

“You need to be aware what your body is telling you and I let it go for too long. There were symptoms there and I knew I wasn’t feeling well.”

Mr Delwig, who grew up in Camperdown and moved to Warrnambool 13 years ago, said the book wasn’t an autobiography. It was written as a form of debate, where people can put themselves in the story.

The experience was a real learning curve, but he wanted to “get something out there” that could help someone else.

“It might trigger a few things that might help them down the track. It’s about being accountable and being responsible and not blaming the system if something goes wrong.

“Because I know I’m responsible for my situation in a lot of ways. I could easily blame other people but it’s not a case of that.

“I want people to think before you go down that road, have a think about what have you done.”

Mr Delwig said the worst thing people could do was ignore the signs their body was sending them. Even when he collapsed he was still hesitant about going to the hospital.

“You just think it will go away and you’re scared of bad news. But at the end of the day, if I didn’t go when I did I wouldn’t be talking to you today. When you know what you’re facing you can fight it.”

Active Mind: Failing Heart will be launched today at Warrnambool Books from 4pm.

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