How cardiac rehab helped John go from heart bypass surgery to an Incan adventure

Cardiac rehabilitation helped John McGhee recover from heart bypass surgery and before long, he was exploring South America, as he tells Rachael Healy.

John McGhee in Peru

“We used to go skiing every year,” says John McGhee, 66. “On a New Year holiday [in 2013], while walking up the hill to get the cable car, I had to keep stopping because there was a sharp pain in my chest.”

John, a retired technical trainer from Swindon, has asthma and put his symptoms down to this. But at the end of the holiday, the pains followed him home. “When I walked fast, I had to stop in the middle of the street,” he explains. “It was a bit embarrassing – I’d get my phone out and check it until I got my breath back.”

John’s wife, Lucette, persuaded him to visit his GP, who suspected John had angina. He was referred to Great Western Hospital in Swindon for an angiogram and was told he might need a stent, or even surgery.

Soon after the angiogram, John’s consultant broke the news – a quadruple heart bypass was needed. “They explained immediately what they would do,” says John. “You think: ‘Oh dear, this is worse than I thought’. But then you just want to have it done and get over it.”

John was sent home and told to continue as normal until the hospital set a date for the operation. “The worst bit was not being able to plan ahead,” says John. “I’ve got two daughters who live abroad – in Canada and Germany – and I couldn’t plan holidays to see them.

“You have to tell everybody: ‘I might not be able to make it’. Then they want to know why. It’s OK explaining to family, but you don’t really want to tell everyone.”

Rehab recovery

In November 2013, John’s operation finally happened. “The surgeon was absolutely terrific,” he says. “The scar was minimal and I could get out of bed the following day – it was my 38th wedding anniversary, so I wanted to get up and see my wife.”

You feel you’re just one of loads of people who have been through the same thing

John was soon back at home, but wondered what should happen next. He’d heard about cardiac rehabilitation and thought it would be helpful. “Three months after my operation I went to rehab and it was great,” explains John. “There were all these people who had also had heart ops and we were all doing our exercises and chatting away.

“The sessions were excellent. They had us jumping up and down and walking around. It made you feel that you were on the way to recovery.”

John was pleased to meet people who had been through a similar experience. “We all felt the same,” he explains. “We would chat about how good it felt to be able to walk without getting pain any more. You feel you’re just one of loads of people – of all ages and walks of life – who have been through the same thing.”

The sessions offered practical advice for the future, too. “Each week at the rehab, they had a specialist who came in and gave a talk on food, diet, lifestyle advice and stress – all sorts of things,” says John. “They even told us we could have an occasional glass of wine.”

Bright future

John McGhee with Tea

Less than two years later, John was enjoying his favourite Chilean wine fresh from the source in South America. Spurred on by his cardiac rehab experience, and with his ruby wedding anniversary approaching, John decided to challenge himself with an adventurous holiday. He and Lucette had always talked about visiting Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 2015 would be the year this dream came true.

“After the heart op, it was coming up to our 40th wedding anniversary, so we decided we’d aim for that,” says John. “When I was feeling OK again, we booked a holiday to tour South America.

“We went to Chile, where I had my red wine in Santiago; we went to Buenos Aires in Argentina; then we went to Iguazu Falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina. That involved loads of walking, in and out of rainbows and mountain passes. It was spectacular.

“Then we went to Rio and visited Copacabana Beach and all of the usual things. Then it was off to Peru, where we went to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. In the mountains, you get to a vantage point at 11,500ft – if you can walk up that far. I made it to the top; I was so pleased. I felt really fit.

The surgery allowed me to do this – to get to this high an altitude and walk up hundreds of steep steps

“It was amazing. I couldn’t have done it a couple of years before. At the top of the highest bit, I thought: ‘The surgery allowed me to do this – to get to this high an altitude and walk up hundreds of steep steps’. If I’d seen the surgeon again, I would’ve bought him a bottle of champagne, I tell you.”

John adjusted his eating habits and thinks this has helped him feel fitter. “I absolutely loved cheese – with biscuits, on pasta, with everything,” he explains. “I don’t have that any more, but I have more vegetables and fruit and I’ve grown to like them more than I did before.” He does allow himself the odd treat, but keeps everything in moderation.

John says he feels healthier than ever. “I keep active,” he says. “I go swimming. The only downside is that I used to have a sauna at the end and I got told I can’t do that anymore. But I still go and do lengths of the pool.

“I walk every day as well. In the summer, we go to Spain and cycle around. Last winter, we went to Canada to visit our daughter Melissa, in Montreal. We were walking around frozen lakes and up and down hills – it’s amazing that I can do that.”

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