I was 57 years old when I had my cardiac event. I had spent 42 years in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, reaching the rank of Captain (E). I had a very stressful job at the time, I was overweight a 15 ½ stone and did little or no exercise. I drank far too much alcohol and although ate well, had far too much of the ‘wrong’ food with salt and fat. I worked long hours and travelled extensively around the UK and abroad. I had regular medical examinations and my blood pressure at that time was not a cause for concern. Notably, I always had my medicals when on leave, when I was relaxed and not stressed.
When I had my heart attack, I had surgery to have two stents fitted. I also suffer with continued angina. Following the surgery, I was retired from the navy and found this very difficult to come to terms with. As a result, I became quite depressed and didn’t know what the future would hold. My GP told me that I needed to make a complete lifestyle change; less alcohol, less salt, healthy eating and increased exercise. I was also put on tablets for my angina and medication to reduce my blood pressure and cholesterol.
Following my surgery I attended the Phase III Cardiac Rehabilitation program, and although initially I thought it wasn’t for me, I soon realised that it was the perfect platform to start the ‘rest of my life’.
As soon as I started to eat more healthily, lost weight and got fitter. I felt better but had some good and bad days, and the depression and anxiety continued for some time. It was like a roller coaster ride but eventually the good outweighed the bad. My original medication gave me a number of side effects but after various changes they disappeared. I now have a resting blood pressure of around 120/65 with a pulse rate of 35. During exercise and after a warm up, however, I do try to increase my pulse rate to 130, before warming down to slowly bring my pulse rate back to normal.
My family gave me tremendous support and the better I felt, the fitter I became. Spending time and playing with my grandchildren gave me great motivation to continue. Doing regular exercise, eating less and healthily, and not drinking alcohol was a struggle at first, but because I did not have to go back to work and my old ways, it was a lot easier to come to terms with, so soon overcame any barriers.
On completion of the Phase III program I was invited to a Phase IV group run by Salli Grant to continue to exercise. Salli ran one class at this time but as numbers grew so did the classes. They weren’t just exercise classes but a time when people in the same position could talk about their problems.
Our blood pressure was taken weekly and it showed that as patients started to lose weight and got fitter their blood pressure dropped. It also became evident that the emotional effects of heart surgery can cause anxiety and depression, notwithstanding the side effects of drugs. This in turn can cause problems at home, work, with relationships and socially.
I suffered all of the above but exercising and talking to others in the same position got me through it and to where I am today. I needed someone who had been through a similar experience as me, to advise, help and encourage me. Today I’m a fit, healthy 64 year old that works as Salli’s Support Leader, talking and encouraging heart patients to get fit and well.
Unfortunately, not everyone is motivated to carry on, especially if they become depressed. The way forward is to encourage patients to continue. Old habits die hard, so it is a struggle to change a lifestyle, but sticking to it, life gets so much better. It is also most important to have family support and have them change their lives to a healthy lifestyle as well.
Life after a heart attack does not mean a miserable existence or a diet of lettuce leaves and oily fish, the occasional treat is perfectly acceptable. Given the motivation all patients can lead a good long healthy life.
Geoff Stokes is a retired captain from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, support leader for the Happy Hearts exercise class and NHS patient.