How cardiac rehab saved me

Cem, heart attack survivor, with his family Cem Hilmi, a fit runner, suffered a heart attack in his kitchen, in front of his wife and daughter. Cem tells us how this event took a toll on his body and mind and how cardiac rehabilitation had a lasting impact on getting his life back on track.

The unexpected heart attack

In 2011 I had a heart attack in my kitchen, in front of my wife and six year old daughter. Each year in the UK there are 188,000 other people in the UK who visit the hospital for the same reason as I did... I just never thought I would be one of them.
When in hospital, it started to sink in. My family had left and the lights on the ward had been turned off – that’s when I started to realise what I’d gone through during that day. I started to cry. What if I fell asleep and it happened again? How would my wife and daughter cope? I didn’t want to die. Once I was home, things worsened for me. The physical adjustments were very hard to come to terms with. Before my heart attack I was able to cover at least 25 miles by bike. Now, I needed help getting to the bathroom.

Feeling isolated and depressed

Friends and family were offering me so much help. I was grateful for their support and kind words, but somehow I still felt isolated and alone even from my closest and dearest. I’d find myself dosing on and off throughout the day, and in the night I often wept to myself for no reason. I retreated into a shell of who I used to be and started to push loved ones away. 

I never thought my mind would need fixing, as well as my heart.

Reaching out for help

My wife saw my anguish and after looking for help online, she came across the BHF Heart Helpline. We were put in touch with Valerie Nagle, a cardiology nurse at our local hospital. We met Valerie who talked us through what had happened to me, what surgery had been performed, nutrition, medication and exercise advice. I was given BHF guides and leaflets and was enrolled onto the rehabilitation program Valerie ran at the hospital. I left Valerie far more aware of what had happened to me and what now needed to happen - to help get me back to my old self. 

Over the next six weeks I attended weekly check-ups, counselling sessions and exercise sessions at the hospital. I had support from nutritionists, physiotherapists, psychiatrists , doctors and nurses. Cardiac rehab was helping me gain hope and purpose.

I needed to beat this. I could be a survivor not a victim.  

The power of cardiac rehab

Rehab is generally underplayed and seen as something for older people. This is simply a myth as not only did rehab help me get back into shape but it also went some way towards promoting my mental well-being. The toll heart disease can take on your mind is something that is not nearly highlighted as much as it should. The BHF have made a massive impact in promoting the importance of rehab services. In addition to funding and supporting cardiac rehab nurses, who help thousands like me, they also fund an annual national audit report of number of cardiac rehab services, their quality and accessibility, to inform leaders in the NHS what needs to change on the ground. 

Thousands of heart patients are missing out on cardiac rehabilitation following a heart attack, increasing their risk of suffering a fatal event. Women in particular are being left behind. It isn’t all doom and gloom. Participation in cardiac rehabilitation has improved over the years, with participation in the UK reaching 50 per cent for the first time last year. But this is still just half the number of eligible heart patients across the UK, meaning tens of thousands of people are still missing out. What is more shocking is the number of services shutting down around the country as highlighted by the BHF’s report. This is not only a false economy, but detrimental to people’s quality of life. My experience and the issues BHF have highlighted nationally make it very clear that more people need to give rehab a chance and we need to change the way cardiac rehab is generally perceived. 

Rehab helped me envisage my future

My strength finally started to return along with my confidence. I bought myself a heart rate monitor and kept tabs on my heart rate whilst exercising during the rehabilitation program. In my first session, I managed to start walking on the treadmill at a slow pace. By the end of the rehabilitation program a mere six weeks later, I had started running on the treadmill. After finishing my rehabilitation, I joined a local circuit training class run for ex-cardiology patients.                          

Cem, heart attack survivor, with his daughter Cem, heart attack survivor, volunteering for the BHF

Confidence in my body

As the weeks passed I started feeling more like the old me. Almost six months to the day after my heart attack, I found myself and my sister packed in with 54,000 other runners at the start of the Great North Run, a 13.1-mile run. I completed it in just under two hours – I’d run it faster than I would have before my heart attack! I was elated and once again I wept, this time they were tears of joy! 

The year after my heart attack I was proud to complete the London Triathlon and the BHF London to Brighton bike ride, raising money for the BHF along the way. Life can seem difficult sometimes. Without the benefit of the information, support and rehabilitation provided by the BHF I doubt my recovery would have been as complete. Suffice to say my family and I are forever grateful for all the help we have had.