Former Auckland mayor and Olympic athlete Les Mills is speaking out about his heart surgery in support of an Auckland exhibition.

For the next two and a half weeks, Brave Hearts will be displayed along the city's waterfront, celebrating the pioneering role of New Zealanders in the development of heart surgery.

Mills, 83, is well familiar with the life-saving work that is being done. Just four weeks ago he was told he had to have surgery urgently or he would die.

"It took me about 10 seconds to choose between possibly going to the afterlife or staying on this Earth and I thought, 'Well that's not much of a choice'," Mills said.


Although he had no prior incidents, his doctors were concerned about a noise in his heart.

"I didn't feel like I had anything wrong with me. I didn't have any major symptoms. I was still exercising but obviously it had to be done."

Fortunately, he was able to avoid open heart surgery with an advanced procedure called Transcatheter Aortic Valve Implantation (TAVI).

"Five years ago and it would have been a different story."

If surgical procedures had not progressed, Mills would have been facing five hours of open heart surgery. Instead he had a keyhole operation in under an hour.

"They inserted a valve to replace my aortic valve, which is quite major because it's the main valve that pumps blood into the heart.

"The operation itself only took about an hour and I came out feeling better than I did going in. It was really quite amazing.

"I was blown away with how quick and easy it all was."


Mills' cardiologist and AMDT trustee who is helping organise the exhibition, Dr Warren Smith, said the surgery Mills had allowed him to come out with nothing more than a scratch.

"You don't have to split the person's chest, you don't have to go into bypass and they can be discharged in a matter of a few days.

"With open heart surgery he would have had to stay in hospital for over a week and it would have taken hours," Smith said.

He said for people of Mills' age, not having to open the chest to stop the heart was of huge benefit.

Brave Hearts has already been shown at the University of Waikato in Hamilton and attracted more than 90,000 visitors.

It will be on display at Wynyard Quarter until June 24.