Walking after a heart attack: Stewart's story
Walking on the South Downs and listening to music helped Stewart Prosser find his way after a heart attack, as he tells Sarah Brealey.
Stewart Prosser was 45 and, he thought, “pretty fit” when he had a heart attack. It was a shock that changed his outlook on life and led him to leave his high-flying job. It was the simple act of walking – above all, walking in his beloved South Downs – that helped him find happiness again, and build on his passion for music too.
All sorts of questions fly through your mind. In the first few hours, you question what it means for the rest of your life
Stewart Prosser was Paul Weller’s trumpeter in The Jam frontman’s other band, The Style Council, back in the 1980s. After spending his 20s as a musician, he went on to work in corporate affairs and marketing at AXA and Lehman Brothers, among others. He was Lehman’s director of corporate communications for Europe and Asia in 2004, when one weekend he started feeling ill. His wife Elise took him to A&E, where he was told he was having a heart attack.
“Shock is the feeling that sums it up,” says Stewart. “All sorts of questions fly through your mind that you don’t have answers for. What does this mean, what comes next, will I have another one? What does this mean for my family? In the first few hours, you question what it means for the rest of your life.”
Stewart had an angioplasty and stent procedure and went home after five days. He was lucky to be able to take extended sick leave from work, and found the hospital cardiac rehabilitation programme helpful.
Returning to walking with music
“After that, my rehab was walking and music,” Stewart says. “I had always enjoyed walking. In the early days you have to exercise gradually. I couldn’t leap back into the gym, so walking was a great way to gradually build up an exercise programme.”
Walking while listening to music was a kind of meditation for Stewart. “A heart attack is draining physically and also mentally,” he says. “The walking and the music in combination are really helpful mentally. They both have a hugely restorative effect. It’s a way of switching your mind off. After my heart attack it was critical to get away from thinking about what had happened. I find walking takes you away from your day-to-day worries. It lifts you and connects you with something a bit deeper. Music does that for me as well: whether I am playing or listening, I get lost in it.”
Stewart with his cocker spaniel, Molly
A new job and a change of perspective
Walking and music both have a hugely restorative effect. It’s a way of switching your mind off.
It was more than nine months before Stewart went back to work, and then he realised he no longer felt the same way about his job. “Lehman Brothers had been really good to me when I was off, and I still loved the work and the people, but it was time to take a different route,” he says. “I didn’t want to go back to what felt like a fast-moving treadmill in the corporate world. It had been a really busy time in the run-up to my heart attack. I had a really frantic schedule going all round the world for meetings.
“It is like the story of the frog being boiled: you get used to it, you normalise the symptoms of tiredness and stress. It sounds a bit New Age, but I do listen to my body now.”
Stewart left to set up his own consultancy business, which also allowed him to spend more time on music and, of course, walking.
He also moved with his family from Surrey to Hampshire, deeper into the South Downs. “The South Downs offers this amazing combination,” Stewart says. “One minute you can be on top of a ridge with a view for miles around, and then a few minutes later you can be in the depths of a copse in a valley with birds singing around you. And there are the little picturesque villages. It gives you a wonderful perspective on life.”
Turning a love for nature into a musical project
Stewart got to know a local composer, Damian Montagu, who also loves walking in the South Downs and was composing melodies inspired by the landscape. The pair set up a project, Walk Upon England. The first album, In a South Downs Way, features spoken word from actor Hugh Bonneville, who is a mutual friend. It went to number one in the specialist classical album charts and number one in the iTunes classical singles chart. The trio performed the album with other musicians to sell-out audiences at the Chichester Festival Theatre. “It was meant to be just a fun project about walking in the South Downs,” says Stewart. “It all comes out of a love that Damian and I had for getting lost in nature.” They are now working on new material.
But, Stewart adds, you don’t have to have the South Downs on your doorstep to feel the benefits of walking. “Even if you are in a city centre, just walking around a local park is helpful,” he says. “You feel you are reconnecting to something you didn’t have time for before, gaining a new experience. You are literally moving forward. And it helps with physical recovery too.”
The importance of family support
Thirteen years on, the heart attack casts only a slight shadow over Stewart’s life. “It is still there at the back of my mind,” he says. “It will always be there, but it is more part of who I am now. I know that I am doing all the right things, in terms of fitness, relaxation, eating, drinking, taking medication and having regular check-ups. I don’t worry about having another heart attack.”
At the time of the heart attack, Stewart had three young children aged 11, nine and four. Now his eldest two have left home, and Stewart and Elise have gained a working cocker spaniel, Molly, who accompanies Stewart on many of his walks. “My family were, and still are, incredibly supportive,” he says. “Even now, if I haven’t been out for a walk or cycle recently they remind me that it might be a good idea to do that.
The colour can drain out of life after a heart attack, and I think it is important to put it back in
When my heart attack happened, I think their questions were the same as mine – what does this mean, will it happen again? It is fading away but I think it is still at the back of our minds, even years later. It puts things into perspective; you think about what is really important and what is not. That has stayed with us. Time together is really important.”
Rebuilding a colourful life
Stewart wants to reassure other people that life can go back to normal. “When you go through a heart attack, you don’t know what life will be like on the other side,” he says. “I really did feel all at sea in terms of what I could and couldn’t do.” He hopes his story might inspire others to keep pursuing their passions.
“The colour can drain out of life after a heart attack, and I think it is important to put it back in,” he says. “You can rebuild life and get back to things you love.
“I want to show people there is light at the end of the tunnel and you can get through it.”