Moving forward after a heart attack
A heart attack prompted former sprinter Mark Bannan to reassess his priorities and take time to enjoy life, as he tells Rachael Healy.
“Aged 54, I felt at rock bottom,” says Mark Bannan, who suffered a heart attack in May 2009. “But gradually, I treated it as an opportunity to build a new and different lifestyle.”
Mark, from Plymouth, was once a keen sprinter. When he turned 50, he’d challenged himself to see how fast he could run. He became serious about the sport, reaching the 100m final of the British Veterans Athletics Championships.
But after his heart attack, Mark was no longer able to sprint. He now enjoys a slower pace of life, embracing hobbies that keep his mind and body active.
Two years after that 100m final, Mark was on a lunch break from his busy job as regional manager for a housing association. He took a stroll and felt a tight sensation in his chest.
“I honestly had no idea that it was anything to do with my heart,” he says. “That’s the scary thing.”
Don’t take things for granted. Be open to change in your life
The pains continued intermittently for a couple of weeks. In the early hours of one morning, Mark was woken by extreme tightness in his chest. His wife, Heather, drove him to hospital.
Mark was told he’d had a heart attack. He was given a clot-busting drug and an angiogram was performed. “The consultant said a stent would be no good because I had a number of blocked arteries,” Mark explains.
“When he told me it was five, I couldn’t believe it.” After a week on the ward, Mark was given a quintuple heart bypass.
“I was quite weak when I came out of hospital,” Mark says. He felt uncertain about exercising again and feared sprinting had contributed to his heart attack. “It worried me,” says Mark. “I thought I’d been stupid.”
Mark’s doctor reassured him this was not the case; his fitness had likely helped him survive the heart attack. But he was told he may never sprint again. “I felt very sad,” says Mark. “It was a loss, almost a grief. But, in the bigger picture, it’s not a big deal because I’m lucky to be alive.”
Mark took three months off work and a referral to cardiac rehabilitation provided much-needed reassurance. “It felt very supportive and safe, and I got advice about lifestyle, dealing with stress, diet and lots of other health issues,” he says.
Although the sessions involved physical activity, Mark felt some anxiety about exercising alone. “I was quite nervous,” he says. “It kind of throws you back to the experience. You have to rationalise it.”
Talking to people about how he felt helped Mark cope with these feelings. “If you keep it bottled up and try to be big about it, it doesn’t do you any good,” he says. “Talk to someone – whether it’s friends, family or, in my case, a cardiac nurse counsellor.”
Mark found yoga helped him cope with stress while staying fit.
Mark also began walking. “I started doing short walks, down the garden and to the end of the road,” he says. “Before long I was doing half a mile.” He soon found solace in coastal walks. “It gave me time to think and share the experience in a way sprinting never did.”
This new pace of life shifted Mark’s priorities. “I saw it as an opportunity to change things,” he says. “I had become conscious that I was probably devoting too much time to work and sprinting.”
During time off work after surgery, Mark reflected on the stresses of his managerial job. He decided to hand in his notice and found a new part-time role placing people with mental health issues into volunteering.
“It was much more hands-on: dealing with people, rather than managing,” he says. “I found I had the most precious thing: time. That was life-changing.”
Mark loved his new job. The part-time element made him think, for the first time, about retirement. This feeling intensified when, in 2010, Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer. “When you’ve both had a life-changing event, it makes you think,” he says. “Don’t take things for granted. Be open to change in your life.”
Mark decided to retire when he turned 60. “Once I’d stopped part-time work, I had a lot of time,” says Mark. “I started to take up all the things maybe I would’ve tried earlier. The first thing I took up was yoga.
“It helps you to relax and helps with breathing, strength and flexibility. I do it once a week and try to do relaxation once a week on my own, too. A piece of advice I would give to people is that something like yoga or relaxation exercises are a good thing if you have anxiety.”
About a year after Mark retired, Heather also finished work. Soon, they were joining clubs and starting new hobbies together – a huge contrast to Mark’s race-training days.
For lots of people, doing smaller, low-key things is really good
“I’d just go off and do my thing,” he says. “Sprinting is very selfish; you’re not really thinking about anybody else apart from yourself and your own performance.
“Heather and I are doing a lot of things together now. It has brought us closer together in many ways. We’ve joined walking groups with the University of the Third Age, which is really nice and very sociable, in beautiful countryside and by the sea.
“We also just joined a community choir in Plymouth. It takes a bit of courage to start, but it is good fun and quite therapeutic. At least, it’s therapeutic for us – I’m not sure about the audience!”
Mark has also joined a poetry club and an architecture group and has begun writing articles on subjects that interest him.
“It’s great if you can go out and run marathons and do big stuff,” he says. “But for lots of people, doing smaller, low-key things is really good. That can be enough.”
Mark and Heather have plans beyond their new hobbies too. “Now that we’re both retired, we feel freer and we’d like to do a bit more travelling, maybe visiting our three children more often and other family all around the country, and seeing old friends,” says Mark.
“A heart attack is a horrible event, but if you come through it, it gives you the chance to rethink things. It’s the start of a new stage in our life.”