"It seemed impossible that I could have heart disease"
Frank Meilack, a semi-professional football referee, thought he was fit and healthy until he was diagnosed with heart disease. He tells Sarah Brealey how he returned to the pitch.
Frank Meilack, from East Sussex, has always taken pride in his fitness. The 50-year-old semi-professional referee has covered more than 1,500 matches over 20 years. He also swims, plays tennis and golf and is a keen runner – all alongside his day job as a depot manager for an outdoor advertising company.
So when he was told that he had heart disease and would need surgery, it knocked him for six.
It was last summer when Frank first noticed something was wrong.
“I was out running, but I would get pain when going up this hill near my house,” he says. “It wasn’t pain in the usual sense, it was more like being jammed in the wrong gear and you feel like you can’t carry on. At first, I thought it was something I’d eaten. But then it happened at the same point on the same hill the next time. It got to the point where I could only run about 200 yards.”
Initially, Frank ignored the problem, but eventually he gathered the courage to pick up the phone and make an appointment with his GP. Until then, he hadn’t even mentioned his health worries to his wife Sue, though he did tell her why he was going to the doctor.
I will never forget that day. It seemed impossible that I could have heart disease
When he described his symptoms, his GP was so concerned that he sent him straight to hospital as an emergency.
At the hospital, Frank did a treadmill test while the electrical activity of his heart was measured with an electrocardiogram (ECG). He was told that the results suggested he had heart disease and would need to have an angiogram to look inside his coronary arteries. “I will never forget that day. It seemed impossible that I could have heart disease. I have taken the referees’ fitness test every year for 20 years and never failed. I felt an overwhelming sadness.”
Frank was told he would need to start taking medicines straight away, and was sent to the hospital pharmacy with his prescription. “There was a bit of a queue. I was getting a bit tearful. I rang my wife and told her the news. I was still struggling to come to terms with it myself.”
A few days later, Frank had the angiogram and was told he would probably need a heart bypass – distressing news made a little easier, he says, by the way it was delivered. “They broke the news to me in the most sincere and helpful way possible. The cardiac nurses, along with the consultant, acted brilliantly and although I came away quite tearful, I could not have asked for more.
“But I was frightened by the prospect of a heart bypass operation,” he adds. “It was overwhelming. Then they rang me and they said instead of the bypass, they were going to try an angioplasty with stents, which was a relief.”
A few weeks later, Frank had an angioplasty and three stents fitted in his left coronary artery to help relieve blockages. He was discharged the following day, but he still had a lot of mental turmoil to deal with.
“I just wanted to know how the hell that could happen to me. What is it that I had done? I felt it was totally unfair, especially when I had always been fit and healthy. I found it hard to see people who were very fat or who smoked and didn’t have heart disease.”
Frank went to cardiac rehab classes and found that he was the youngest person there. But cardiac rehab also helped him to understand that his earlier lifestyle hadn’t been completely flawless and he gained useful tips about living more healthily in the long term.
He explains: “I was under the misconception that no matter what I ate or drank, if I went out and did a 5k or 10k run, that would make up for it. But at rehab they were very clear that that isn’t the case. If you have seven or eight pints, or you get stuck into the cheese board, you can’t undo it no matter what you do the next day.” Now Frank has improved his diet, cut back on chocolate and crisps, and has lost weight as a result.
Back in action
Within six weeks of being diagnosed, I had my angioplasty, and less than a week later, I was able to make a gradual return to work. Totally and utterly amazing
A week after the procedure, Frank started walking his Jack Russell, Rosie, around the local park, and gradually built up the distance he covered. In October, two months after he had started to build up his walking, he took the referees’ fitness test again, which meant having to run 2,400m in 12 minutes. “I was terrified the pain would come back. But it didn’t and I passed the test.”
It was a milestone in his emotional recovery as well as his physical one, a sign that life was returning to normal again. Although it will never be quite the same again, many of the changes have been positive, including the fact that Frank is now making an effort to spend more time with his family. He feels both lucky and grateful for the swift treatment he received and the speed of his recovery.
“Within six weeks of being diagnosed, I had my angioplasty, and less than a week later, I was able to make a gradual return to work. Totally and utterly amazing.”
Frank, who has been a committed BHF supporter since his father encountered heart problems and had to undergo a quadruple bypass operation, has ridden our London to Brighton bike ride four times, as well as taking part in a fundraising Santa Jog. Now he hopes to do the London to Brighton ride again.
He says: “I know that no words will be able to express my total and utter gratitude to the BHF in its continued effort to progress medical science in this area, as well as the incredible hospital surgeons and staff for what they have done for my family and me.”
Read our feature about cardiac rehab
Get our tips for wellbeing after a heart event
Cardiac rehab helps heart patients like Frank return to everyday life as quickly as possible, and improves the chances of them staying healthy in future. It is suitable for you if you’ve had a heart attack, coronary angioplasty or heart surgery, and it is recommended if you’ve had a pacemaker or ICD fitted or you have heart failure.
In cardiac rehab, you can do exercise that’s tailored to you, in a safe environment, and some offer information sessions, usually covering risk factors for heart disease and how to reduce these. There are sessions about healthy eating, how to manage stress, practical issues such as driving, holidays and returning to work. You might also learn relaxation techniques.
You should be invited to join a cardiac rehabilitation programme, usually starting between two and eight weeks after you leave hospital. If you don’t get an invitation, ask your hospital if there is one available. The BHF funds the annual National Audit of Cardiac Rehabilitation. Published every autumn, it collects information about the availability, quality and outcomes of cardiac rehab in order to improve local services to patients.
You can find out where your nearest cardiac rehab programme is by visiting cardiac-rehabilitation.net or calling the Heart Matters Helpline on 0300 330 3300.