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‘A warmth that made you feel secure’ - Tributes to woman who had seven open-heart operations

PUBLISHED: 12:05 02 January 2020 | UPDATED: 16:15 02 January 2020

Newly-weds Sarah and Mark on June 8, 2002. They married at St Margaret’s Church, Drayton  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Newly-weds Sarah and Mark on June 8, 2002. They married at St Margaret’s Church, Drayton Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

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Sarah Hewitt had worked at Norfolk & Norwich hospitals and care homes. She ‘had a warmth that instantly made you feel secure’

Sarah after her operation in 2014, outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONSarah after her operation in 2014, outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

If the measure of a fruitful life is not the number of years but their quality, Sarah Hewitt ticked the right boxes. She was a small baby and a diminutive adult (4ft 10.5ins… and, importantly, "a bit") but what she lacked in stature was more than made up for by spirit.

Sarah had numerous holes in her heart as a tot, would during her life undergo seven sessions of open-heart surgery, and in her final years needed to breathe oxygen from tanks that travelled with her.

But as her family says, she battled on and lived life to the full.

She even diagnosed husband Mark's heart murmur. It probably saved his life.

Sarah was a born carer. She looked after adults and children in various places; worked in A&E; and was even a health care assistant in the cardiology department of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Sarah Hewitt. At the service to mark her life, the celebrant said ‘what made her so great was her complete, unconditional love and support for her family and friends’  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONSarah Hewitt. At the service to mark her life, the celebrant said ‘what made her so great was her complete, unconditional love and support for her family and friends’ Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Even when deteriorating health brought premature retirement, Sarah didn't slow down. She continued to go to music concerts, grew (and gave away) vegetables in her Hellesdon garden, and cooked countless cakes (for friends and family; to raise money for worthy causes; and to bring cheer to staff at the hospital where she'd worked).

It's little wonder the health trust said in its Pulse Magazine that it was "impossible for anyone to feel sad or in bad form around her; she wouldn't allow it!" No wonder, either, that more than 140 people attended a service at Colney Wood to celebrate Sarah's life.

Sarah Kirk was born in Costessey in 1974. When she failed to gain weight, said parents Richard and Doreen, doctors found "a multitude of holes" in her heart.

When two years old she had eight hours of surgery at Great Ormond Street Hospital, went home, and soon was back in London to have her tricuspid valve replaced. (One of our main valves, it lets blood move from one chamber to the next and stops it going backwards.)

After infant, junior and high school in Costessey, Sarah began a career in the caring profession. She worked at children's nurseries; at The Hamlet centre in Norwich (helping children and adults with profound disabilities and complex health needs); with disabled people at Repton House, Old Catton; and had a spell at Caroline House rehabilitation centre (brain injuries and similar) in Norwich.

Bride Sarah with father Richard in 2002  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONBride Sarah with father Richard in 2002 Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Sarah spent about five years caring for the elderly on Glandford Ward at the old Norfolk & Norwich Hospital. Then for five or six years she worked as an auxiliary nurse in the accident and emergency department at both old and new Norfolk and Norwich hospitals.

"She loved that," says Mark. "But because of her health problems, she was struggling with the shifts. Then, of all places, she found a job in the cardiology outpatients department!" The hours were kinder.

Sarah had her sixth episode of heart surgery in 2004 - at Papworth - and the seventh, later, at St Thomas' Hospital in London. Dad Richard says that last op seemed to affect her diaphragm and her lungs didn't work properly.

Sarah had reduced her hours to three days a week. "She battled on and on, and kept going, until she couldn't do it anymore," says Mark. After the spell at St Thomas' she was off sick for about a year, before retiring on medical grounds about four and a half years ago.

Quipping that she was becoming a kept woman, Sarah had more time for cooking and tending the garden. About 18 months ago the couple got dog Jimmy. She could walk him around the block, albeit slowly.

Mark and Sarah in 2004. They’d met in 1999 at a leaving party at Chicago’s nightclub in Norwich. Mark knew the man who was going; Sarah knew his partner  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONMark and Sarah in 2004. They’d met in 1999 at a leaving party at Chicago’s nightclub in Norwich. Mark knew the man who was going; Sarah knew his partner Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

For the last five years or so, Sarah needed oxygen tanks to help her breathe. Debbie says her sister struggled initially, but learned to live with it.

Mark tells many stories that prove the point. His music-loving wife attended many concerts over the years - such as Robbie Williams, the Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, Kylie, Madonna, Foo Fighters, and Coldplay in Wales. She also dressed up for The Rocky Horror Show.

Once she was on extra oxygen, the tank came too - and woe betide anyone who was a bit rude about it.

Mark admits his wife didn't suffer fools gladly. "Sarah had quite a good vocabulary…" adds her dad. She called a spade a spade, and was nicknamed The Wasp. "A sting in her tail, for the size of her," laughs mum.

Mark and Sarah met in 1999 at a leaving party at Chicago's nightclub in Norwich. Mark knew the man who was going; Sarah knew his partner. They took the mickey out of each other, clicked, and later went to the old Odeon cinema, to see Notting Hill.

Sarah was known as ‘fun-loving, with a wicked sense of humour’  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONSarah was known as ‘fun-loving, with a wicked sense of humour’ Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

"It was quite a nice date, because I got my wallet out and she'd already paid!" Mark remembers. They married three years later, at St Margaret's Church, Drayton.

For their 10th wedding anniversary they headed for Lancashire. Sarah was interested in the story of the "Pendle witches" and keen to follow their trail. Ten people were hanged in 1612 for alleged witchcraft.

She liked Moorhouse's Pendle Witches Brew, so they visited the Burnley brewery… and tagged along with a stag party having a tour of the complex.

It was thanks to Sarah that Mark's own heart condition was identified. Folk at his 40th birthday party were larking around with a plastic stethoscope and Sarah reckoned her husband had a murmur. His sister and dad, both with nursing experience, agreed. Early the following year he had an aortic valve replaced.

Just before Christmas 2018, Sarah's health began going downhill. She had problems with fluid build-up, and there were numerous trips to hospital for blood and albumin transfusions.

A candid picture of Sarah on her wedding day  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONA candid picture of Sarah on her wedding day Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

In the summer she was sent to St Thomas', where a bleeding ulcer was found. A heart valve had also degenerated. Debbie says her sister also had problems with her liver, kidneys and spleen. She had been on dialysis to shift the fluid: sometimes, three litres was removed every couple of days.

Sadly, Sarah died. She was 45.

A letter to Mark from Prof Nancy Fontaine, chief nurse with Norfolk & Norwich University Hospitals Foundation Trust, said Sarah had been "excellent at her job and had a wonderful rapport with her patients, and never let her personal health problems impact on the care she provided to her patients".

The family has many memories. How Sarah didn't look her age, for instance. Even in her 30s and 40s she was being asked for identification when buying alcohol.

She had small feet - a child's size 13. Bit of a problem when the clothes-lover sought high heels! She had some boots made specially.

The flag at half-mast, at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, as a tribute to Sarah Hewitt  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONThe flag at half-mast, at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, as a tribute to Sarah Hewitt Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Sarah was something of a "shop snob", too - loving M&S but giving Aldi, Lidl and Asda a wide berth.

At the service to mark her life, the celebrant said: "She was a strong, courageous, determined and lovely lady who had a warmth about her that instantly made you feel cared for, safe and secure; but what made her so great was her complete, unconditional love and support for her family and friends."


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