Playing football after a heart attack – Chris’s story
When Chris Courtenay Williams had a heart attack, he feared he’d have to quit his favourite game. He tells Rachael Healy how he got back to playing 5-a-side.
Chris Courtenay Williams, 71, is a dedicated football player. Since 1977 he’s played up to three games a week. Every Wednesday evening, you can find him engaged in some serious five-a-side at the Northgate Arena in Chester.
“I used to play upfront because I was quite a prolific goal scorer, but as I’ve got older I’ve moved further back,” says Chris. “I’m happy to play at the back – I’m quite a good goalkeeper – but I like to sneak up front now and again.” He plays all year round, and has only had two significant absences in 38 years. One was for eight weeks, while he waited for a cracked rib to heal. More recently, Chris had a six-week break following a heart attack in March 2011.
“The one thing I was most bothered about when I had the heart attack was that I wanted to get back to playing football,” says Chris. “I knew that once I returned to football, my life was back to normal.”
Back in early 2011, Chris had been putting in long hours at work and the demands of his job were causing him stress. When he started experiencing chest pain one afternoon, he feared he knew what was happening. He called an ambulance for himself and was taken to the Countess of Chester Hospital, before being transferred to Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital to have a stent fitted.
Chris began attending cardiac rehabilitation, consisting of a weekly physical activity class and talks about heart health. The classes started gently, with activities including 10 minutes of slow walking on a treadmill.
Chris began to feel frustrated with the pace. “I felt like I wasn’t testing myself. I started to do, say, half an hour on the rowing machine,” he says. “I didn’t really want to wait the 12 weeks before going back to football because of my age. I felt I would just stiffen up and it would be harder for me.”
Staff at the rehab programme monitored Chris closely and promised to let him know when he could return to the pitch. “I can’t complain about the treatment I got,” he says. “It was absolutely brilliant; I really can’t fault it.”
Although Chris was keen to push himself physically, he found that the loss of confidence that can often accompany a heart event was challenging. “When you’ve had a heart attack, the first thing about it is that it’s very inconvenient. It gets in the way of your life, and I really wanted to get back to doing everything I normally do. I didn’t want to be sat in a chair, thinking: ‘I’ve had a heart attack; that’s the end of my life.’”
I wanted to get back to doing everything I normally do
Once he’d been discharged, Chris had tried to resume everyday activities. “Less than a week after I’d got out of hospital, I went into the garden, started digging and, I must admit, I felt like I’d overdone it,” he says. “I came in the house and sat down; my wife wasn’t very happy. I did realise I’d have to take it a bit easier.”
He was still determined though, and began working on his fitness with the help of his friend John Danby, a fellow footballer and personal trainer. “I used to see him once or twice a week and he was brilliant with me,” Chris says. “I was with him a year and he was so much help to me. He would get me doing exercises, weights, running – I’d do a bit of everything and it really helped me get my confidence back.”
Chris’s risk of heart attack had been increased by raised cholesterol levels, so he began a new medication regime and planned a new, heart-healthy diet.
“At the time of my heart attack, my cholesterol was above the normal level, at 8mmol/L, so I have to take statins every day,” explains Chris. “I don’t like having to take them because of the side effects – they give you bad dreams and interfere with your bowel movements – but it is one of the hazards of having high cholesterol.
“I was on quite a lot of tablets just after I’d had the heart attack, but now I’m just down to statins and an aspirin a day. I’m also more conscious of my diet now. I’m very careful with what I eat – I don’t eat as many crisps and I’m very wary of eating too many fatty things.”
Back in the game
Before long, Chris’s efforts were paying off and he was told he could return to his weekly five-a-side game.
“After six weeks, I played with no side effects and I think I even scored two or three goals as well,” he says. “I celebrated and all the lads celebrated with me, which was nice because they knew how much I loved it. They all said they’d missed me, so it was a bit emotional.
All the lads celebrated with me... it was a bit emotional
“I’m the oldest on the team now, and I’ve seen lots of players come and go. Currently we have two players who are 50 years younger than me.
“We’re just a group of lads who organise a game every Wednesday. We turn up, pick two teams and play. There’s no larking about, though; we do play very seriously. We get some good games and I don’t get any special treatment, I can tell you!”
Chris is playing football weekly again and tries to do some physical activity every day, strolling uphill to the local shop during his lunch break. He’s grateful to everybody who helped his recovery and wants others to know that life doesn’t always get worse after a heart attack.
“I’d like to thank my wife and family, and the BHF for their support, the NHS for the wonderful treatment I had, and John, my friend and personal trainer, who did help me such a lot,” Chris says.
“My advice to anybody who has had a heart attack is not to simply think that that’s the end. Life can continue on normally afterwards.”