Taking up fencing after a heart attack: Phil's story

Heart attack survivor Phil Barr, 58, found that taking up fencing helped him get back in shape - just in time to walk his daughter down the aisle. He shares his story.

Phil Barr, Andy and Stuart

“Keep moving and breathing.” That was the advice my doctor gave me after I survived a heart attack three years ago. Like most people who have had a heart attack, mine came completely out of the blue.

It started one Friday in December 2014. First I got pains in my elbows and chest. Then I threw up at work (I was vice principal of a secondary school in Luton). Despite this, I didn’t bother seeing a doctor until the following Monday – I now know that was incredibly stupid.

Luckily my GP was on the ball and arranged for an ambulance. If it wasn’t for his prompt actions, I doubt I’d still be around.

Dealing with diagnosis and making lifestyle changes

My wife Cathy and I sat in total disbelief in a ward at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital as we were given the test results. I had felt fit and healthy, was working in a job I loved and was very happy with life. However, I’d had arthritis in my hip, and the year before had needed a hip replacement at a relatively young age – so I hadn’t been doing much exercise and hadn’t really bothered about what I ate.

Luckily my employers were understanding, and supported my gradual return to work

During the following days, an angiogram revealed the main artery in my heart was 95 per cent blocked. The cardiologist fitted a stent. In a later procedure, they attempted to fit another in a minor artery, but despite trying for three-and-a-half hours, couldn’t open the blockage. So I still have one small blocked artery, but I don’t let it get in the way of living my life.

The hospital gave me lots of useful advice about eating healthily. The cardiac rehabilitation exercise classes were excellent and all the staff were supportive, caring and understanding.

I talked it through with my wife and decided that going part time would support my recovery. Luckily my employers were understanding, and supported my gradual return to work. But I felt I could not give 100 per cent to the job. In 2016, I took early retirement from the school, and started working part time as a school inspector and tutor for trainee teachers.

Trying a new sport to regain fitness

Phil Barr with son JacobStill, something was missing. I had been gradually regaining fitness through weekly cardiac exercise classes at the sports centre, but I was looking for something more. In the past I’d loved the discipline of martial arts, which my father had introduced me to, and had achieved third dan black belt in the Korean martial art of tang soo do.

This time I was inspired by my son, Jacob (pictured right, with Phil). He’d been fencing with the Paul Davis Fencing Academy for a few years and was doing very well, achieving an under-11 national sabre ranking.

Each time I dropped Jacob off for his sessions, I was impressed by the children and coaches, who were enthusiastic and passionate. Before that, I’d only seen fencing by accident on TV during the Olympics and I assumed that it was for the upper classes and Errol Flynn.

An old friend, Stuart, had also stopped practising martial arts, and I persuaded him we should start something different. So in September 2016, at the age of 56, we joined an adult fencing class. Our teacher was Andy Docherty (pictured at the top of the page with Phil and Stuart), an amazing foil fencer and a patient, understanding coach.

Learning the sport with my friend and my son was very rewarding. I’ve found fencing is a great sport – I would recommend anyone take it up as long as their doctor approves. I’m still learning the basics and get frustrated that my brain still thinks like a 21-year-old, but my body will remind me that it’s not.

Phil Barr with his family on his daughter's wedding day

Phill with his family on daughter Emma's wedding day

Winning gold and looking forward

Andy encouraged us to enter competitions. My first competition was a disaster. When Andy said it was a ‘senior’ competition, I thought he meant competitors would be my age. You should have seen my face when 18-year-olds turned up! I think I lost every match and came last.

Most rewarding of all was being able to walk my younger daughter Emma down the aisle in October 2017

But then in 2017 we got the chance to enter the Hertfordshire Team Fencing Championships. Stuart and I trained hard and listened even more attentively to Andy. On competition day, we were both nervous. We didn’t want to let the team down. But our team won gold!

2017 was a good year – my son won bronze in the England Youth Championships under-11 sabre championships. Most rewarding of all was being able to walk my younger daughter Emma down the aisle in October. My brother from Canada and my sister from Spain were there, which made the occasion even more special.

I felt very proud, grateful and thankful to everyone who had supported my recovery – Cathy, my children Laura, Emma and Jacob, friends and NHS staff.

I could easily not have been there if things had turned out differently. Now I’m looking forward to many happy occasions.

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