Doris Sealey struggles for words to describe the man who saved her life 44 years ago.

It was 1962 when the then 52-year-old was introduced to a 38-year-old heart surgeon, Brian Barratt-Boyes (later Sir Brian).

She had been sent to Green Lane Hospital for tests after her health deteriorated following years of heart problems. The diagnosis was not good: allow the surgeon to perform an aortic heart valve replacement - a medical first - or face death soon.

"He saved my life. I am overcome with praise for him. He was a great surgeon, a great doctor and a compassionate man," she said yesterday.

Sir Brian died this week in the United States from complications from a heart operation. He was 82.

Yesterday Mrs Sealey, a mother of three, celebrated her 96th birthday with an afternoon tea-party with family.

The celebration was a chance for her to reflect on the years she has been able to enjoy as a result of that operation. Years that have seen 10 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren added to the Sealey clan.

When her husband fell ill, she was able to nurse him until his death seven years later, in 1986.

Mrs Sealey said her first meeting with Sir Brian followed a trip to Green Lane for tests. "They told me I needed surgery, right away - if I did not I would not live."

She described him as confident with a good manner.

"I liked him very much."

Mrs Sealey's son David Sealey said the results of the operation were miraculous.

"She was very, very sick.

"Our backs were up against the wall and there didn't seem to be any other chance of giving her a chance to live."

Three months after the operation, Mrs Sealey was able to resume gardening and returned to church and community work in Morrinsville, where the family farmed.

"It was a traumatic time for the family. Things were so much different from today. We take so many things for granted.

"We were lucky to have been introduced to Sir Brian, there was no one else in the world then that could do what he was able to." 

Email tributes

I am saddened to hear of the death of Sir Brian Barratt-Boyes. I was born a blue baby in 1955. In February 1962 I underwent formal operative repair, with a second repair in July 1962, both by Brian Barratt-Boyes. This pioneering operation has enabled me to enjoy a very normal and healthy life up until last year when things finally caught up with me again.

I know that if it was not for Sir Brian Barratt-Boyes I, along with many others, would not be here today. I really owe him, and the legacy that he has left, so much.
- Mike Tolhoek

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Thank you for this great tribute to a man who also saved my life over 40 years ago. Sir Brian operated on my heart when I was 5, around 1965, replacing two valves and repairing a hole and muscle in the heart. I am extremely grateful that this man gave me the opportunity to have a healthy and normal life. Everything is going very strong with my heart after 40 years. I understand I was one of the first 10 in New Zealand to have this pioneering hole in the heart operation. Thank you for this tribute to a great New Zealand pioneer.
- Geoff Southgate

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I am extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Sir Brian Barratt-Boyes. I am the girl on whom he operated in 1962 in the world's first aortic homograft surgery. He not only saved my life, but probably thousands of people since have gone on to lead normal lives because of his brilliance. I met him again 25 years later when he re-operated to replace the graft and again I have gone on to lead a normal life. The world is certainly a better place because of him. My condolences and love go to his family.
- Marilyn Hollinsworth