Eric Young's 56th birthday present might be his best yet.

Two days after the longtime broadcaster's birthday late last month, he was on the operating table at Mercy Hospital in Auckland, where doctors cracked open his sternum, stopped his heart, deflated his lungs and performed five and a half hours of open heart surgery.

The surgery to repair a faulty valve was "the perfect birthday gift", the Prime News First at 5.30 anchor told the Herald on Sunday yesterday.

"Because it was sort of guaranteeing me a few more," he said.

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It also ensured today he'll watch his brother marry, and tomorrow he'll sit down to Christmas dinner with his wife, Michelle, and other family.

Both celebrations will take place at Young's home in the Titirangi bush, in West Auckland.

"We don't have too many Christmases in our own home and it's going to be a great
one. It's going to be really small, but really lovely, and we're looking forward to it."

'It was a heavy, loud presence in my chest'

Young, an award-winning journalist who worked in radio, newspapers and at TV3 before joining Prime News in 2006, had always enjoyed good health but was diligent about having regular check-ups with his doctor.

This year he found out he had a heart murmur, but after tests was told it did not look serious.

Two months later a bad dizzy spell prompted him to return to the doctor. After more tests he was told a heart valve was failing and surgery was needed.

"The two words that stuck out on my cardiologist's report were 'urgent and severe' ... I'm incredibly fortunate that I can afford health insurance — basically from 10 days after that conversation I was lying on a table and with a whole bunch of people looking after me.

"I've never been in a situation where your very existence is so beholden to other people and that was the only part that scared me. I was genuinely looking forward to the surgery because I was starting to become breathless.

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"This is the best way I could describe it: You know how you're never aware of your heart? I was always aware of my heart. It was a heavy, loud presence in my chest and I never escaped it, until I did."

The reality of his situation hit home when he met the woman who was "basically going to be in charge of my heart and lungs on the heart and lung machine" during surgery, Young said.

"I sort of knew in one sense what open heart surgery was, but it wasn't until then ... that you realise 'oh s***, they're going to stop my heart and deflate my lungs. This is not going to be fun'."

Gratitude the big lesson

His surgery was actually a series of surgeries, including a maze procedure, which helps teach the heart to beat regularly again.

After seven nights — two in intensive care — at Mercy, a private hospital in central Auckland, he returned home.

Life isn't back to normal — he can't lift anything weighing more than 2kg, which includes his two extremely affectionate Burmese cats, Denny and Alan, and he isn't allowed to drive until next week. He expects to be back at work on January 8.

For now, he's happy to share his story in the hope it could encourage others to act on their own health concerns, and to thank those who had helped him, from the staff at Mercy to his work colleagues.

"I'm grateful. I'd like to say I'm a reasonably grateful person anyway, but the last four weeks have taught me gratitude on a different scale."