Meg Tattam smiles at the camera and wears a blue graduation gown and cap with a black dress. Photo: Michael Gray

How life-saving heart surgery failed to derail Meg’s university ambitions

How life-saving heart surgery failed to derail Meg’s university ambitions

UOW Shoalhaven student and mother-of-four juggled full-time study through recovery from surgery

Early last year, Meg Tattam was preparing for her final year of university. She was looking forward to finishing her Bachelor of Social Work after three years of full-time study, a period in which she also juggled children, work, the COVID-19 pandemic, and long placements.

But life, as it so often does, had other plans.

Meg had been feeling unwell with back pain for a few months but put it down to the stress of the many balls she had in the air at the time. It was only at the urging of her daughter that she decided to see her doctor. After a lung and heart X-ray, things became very serious very quickly.

“I went and saw a cardiologist, and he said I had an enlarged heart and needed open heart surgery. I had a bicuspid aortic valve and it was a ticking time bomb,” Meg says. “I was so desperate to finish uni because I had come so far, so I asked if I could put off the surgery for a while, but the doctor said it was urgent and needed to be done right away.”

Despite the news, Meg was still determined to finish her degree.

“I was not going to stop,” she says, outlining how she immediately emailed all her subject coordinators and the Campus Manager at UOW Shoalhaven, Chris Hadley, to let them know that she would continue to push ahead.

Admitted for surgery as the semester was beginning, Meg was studying, logging in to Zoom tutorials, and working on assessments up until the moment she was wheeled in for surgery, and then started again in her hospital bed as she recovered from the tremendous physical ordeal.

“The nurses were laughing and couldn’t believe that I was back on my laptop and working on my assessments as soon as I came out of the Intensive Care Unit. But I needed to keep going. I was so determined to finish. I was not going to stop for anything.”

Although she was meant to take six weeks to recover, in less than half that time Meg was back in the classroom with a full-time study load.

“Everyone was so incredibly supportive at Shoalhaven. My peers in my degree were amazing, and the staff helped me in any way I needed. It was a lot, but having my studies really gave me something to focus on and take my mind off everything else. I just took it one step at a time.”

It is that tenacity and drive that carried Meg throughout not only the intense physical and mental challenges of open-heart surgery, but also through her degree as a whole.

When she celebrates her graduation from UOW this week (Thursday 25 January) at Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre, it will truly be a momentous occasion. She will be joined by her four children and her parents, all there to acknowledge Meg’s hard work in achieving a Bachelor of Social Work with Distinction.

“There will be tears at graduation,” Meg says with a laugh. “I feel really proud of what I have achieved.”

While it was a year of tremendous challenge for Meg, who is the first in her family to graduate from university, it was also a year of joy. The surgery put life in perspective and provided the spark for Meg to embrace every opportunity that came her way.

“When I started the Bachelor of Social Work, one of the things I really wanted to do was join an overseas study placement to Taiwan that was planned. So when I got sick, that was one of things I was really disappointed about because I thought I wouldn’t be able to go. The Taiwan trip was eventually cancelled and replaced with a trip to Fiji and Vanuatu. But only a few weeks after getting out of hospital, I decided to apply and I was accepted.

“My cardiologist gave me his blessing and said I should go out and not be afraid of living my life.”

Meg Tattam smiles at the camera and wears a blue graduation gown and cap with a black dress. Photo: Michael Gray

In October, Meg joined a cohort of UOW social work students, led by Associate Professor Mim Fox, for three weeks in Vanuatu and Fiji. It was life-changing in many ways. Meg was thrilled to delve into the experiences of the local communities she met along the way, while also enjoying the beauty of the natural landscapes.

“It was the first time I was able to go bushwalking and swim in the ocean since my operation. It was a bit slow going, but I loved every minute.

“I was the first one in the water, the first one to say yes to everything. To know that I’m still here and can do all these things was amazing.”

That sense of perspective and calm is a legacy of the past 12 months. Initially drawn to sociology because she wanted to make a difference, and because of her own experiences on the opposite side of the system, Meg is now focused on helping others in the field of drug and alcohol support.

“Social work has so many different avenues and so many different places I can go. When you’re a social worker, you’re there on the frontline helping people. There is so much need around and social workers are always the ones who are there to help patients. I am happy that social work is finally receiving the recognition it deserves.

“My doctors tell me I need to keep my stress down, which is funny because social work can be stressful, but I think I have a perspective and a calmness now. I know life is too short to be unhappy or to be in a job that I don’t love, so I will make sure that what I am doing really matters.”

Meg is not finished studying and is aiming to take on a doctorate in the coming years, ideally once her younger children are a little older. She would also love to work in Fiji or Vanuatu, helping to implement desperately needed systems that help women with alcohol or drug addictions. It is evident that Meg’s lived experiences, her passion, and her tenacity will see her make a true impact on the social work world.

After four years of study, Meg paid tribute to recognise the immense support of her peers in getting her through, particularly her friend Hayleigh Topping.

“There were four of us who all started at the same time and we are all graduating together. They have all been incredible at helping me through, even when it felt really tough. I could not have done it without them.”

Her four children, too, have been by Meg’s side throughout her degree and helped her to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

“They have had to be patient throughout the past four years of university and then my surgery and recovery. I’m very proud of them,” she says.

Looking back, Meg can’t quite believe how far she’s come, but it is clear she is just getting started.

“It’s been a wild ride,” she says with a laugh. “But I’m determined to make the most of every opportunity, to live as much as I can. I’m ticking things off my bucket list as quick as I can.”