Extreme Makeover: Life After a Heart Attack

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Heart attack survivors face a host of challenges after they come home from the hospital. Not only are there procedures to recover from, there may also be new medications to manage, and depression, fear and anxiety to wrestle with. On top of all that, the patient’s doctor may also recommend drastic lifestyle changes.

For many patients, it’s those lifestyle changes that are the hardest to conquer. It’s not easy for anyone to overhaul their diet, quit smoking or start an exercise routine, and yet some heart patients are tackling all of these at the same time. For heart attack survivors, though, these changes are critical to reducing their risk of a second heart attack.

By focusing on what’s to be gained — more energy, weight loss, a healthy heart — people can, over time, make the changes that lead to better health and longevity. Here are three Mended Hearts members who overhauled their lifestyles. Let their stories inspire you to make those healthy changes you may be avoiding.

Mike Anthony: From overweight and overworked to vegan marathoner

Mike Anthony, a member of Mended Hearts Chapter 140 in Bergen County, N.J., had a near-fatal heart attack in 2007, not long after his 40th birthday. While working stressful 14- to 16-hour days as a film location manager, Anthony gained 80 pounds and exercised only sporadically. After finishing a long stint managing the film What Happens in Vegas, Anthony got his wake-up call: a heart attack.

“My heart stopped when they were getting me ready for emergency stenting,” says Anthony. “It was a very shocking morning.”

Doctors implanted four stents total. “I thought my life was over,” he says. “The doctor said I had severe coronary artery disease. I didn’t want to accept that fate.”

Determined to slow the progression of his disease, Anthony entered cardiac rehabilitation and studied plans outlined by Drs. Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn and Joel Furman. “They all emphasize a plant-based diet — fruits and vegetables, high fiber, no meat or dairy, and little or no fat,” Anthony says.

He understood the benefits of veganism, but it took time for him to fully adapt to the diet and the lifestyle. “When I heard about athletes like Rich Roll and Scott Jurek, I realized you can be vegan and strong,” he says. “Then I could accept it.”

With two of America’s top ultra endurance athletes as inspiration, Anthony adopted a plant-based diet and started running. He lost all of those 80 pounds (give or take a few) and has completed four marathons and numerous half marathons. In April, he will run his first 50-kilometer race. “I’m not winning these races, but it feels so good to be healthy,” he says.

Anthony still works long days, but maintains a more reasonable schedule with less pressure. His cholesterol, formerly at 325, is down to normal levels. Junk food is a distant memory. “I don’t crave the old stuff,” he says. “I crave a big salad every day.”

For those who struggle to change their diet and start exercising, Anthony, always willing to help his Mended Hearts community, says to give it time. “As I began to feel better, it got easier,” he says. “I truly believe your body can heal itself if you eat well, engage in physical activity and rest.”

Paul Maher: From take-out to clean eating king

He drank, smoked, didn’t exercise and had heart disease in his family, but at age 41, Paul Maher showed no signs of heart disease, until he went into full cardiac arrest at home. “It was a perfect storm,” he says.

About eight days after an ambulance rushed Maher to the hospital, surgeons performed quintuple bypass surgery. A few days later, they implanted a defibrillator. Two weeks post-heart attack, Virginia Hospital in Arlington, Va., discharged Maher with a lengthy list of prescriptions and advice. Now what?

Maher quickly fell back into his usual routine. He quit smoking, but only moderately cleaned up his diet. He did not, however, stop drinking, which later triggered symptoms of atrial fibrillation (Afib). The second Afib episode required a hospital stay. “That was the turning point,” he says. “I realized that I was the only one responsible for my health. I’ve got to do this.”

He immediately overhauled his eating habits to a diet of mainly fresh vegetables and fruits with few processed foods. He also started exercising six days a week. “When I met my wife, I didn’t own tennis shoes,” he says.

That soon changed, as Maher spent up to an hour a day cycling, running and sometimes swimming. He started entering sprint triathlons and 5K running events. “Always having a goal helps me stay active,” he says.

When he’s not training for an event, he spends at least 30 minutes a day with either a P90X workout or some other activity. Regular exercise and a little less overtime helps him keep stress at bay.

Eight and a half years post-heart attack, Maher takes only 10mg of Lipitor and aspirin. Although Maher’s young children only know their healthy dad, the shift didn’t come without effort. “The biggest obstacle was accepting the fact that I had to change,” he says. “I tried to skirt the lines of just doing enough, eating healthy just enough, only drinking sometimes. I realized that’s not enough. I had to fully commit to be healthy.”

Shirley Kell: New year, new life

Shirley Kell rang in 1997 with a heart attack. She had no symptoms but knew something didn’t feel right. Dr. James O’Neill, of Clarkston Medical Group in Clarkston, Mich., did “every heart test known to man,” she says, but couldn’t find anything wrong. And then a blood enzyme test came back positive. Three days later, she had quadruple bypass surgery.

When Kell got home from the hospital, she went into a lifestyle change frenzy. “I read every label in the grocery store, recorded every calorie I ate and walked on a treadmill every day for an hour,” Kell says. She stayed in cardiac rehab for nine-and-a-half years.

Over time, Kell wore out the belt on her treadmill. She later laxed a bit in her strict, low-fat, low-calorie diet. She gained back most of the 50 pounds she lost. Yet, she redefined her life in other ways, letting go of an unhealthy relationship and retiring from her longtime job at General Motors. Kell’s kids, who she raised as a single mom, grew up and gained some independence. She started volunteering for the American Heart Association, Mended Hearts and organizations that help the homeless.

With her life streamlined, Kell is beginning to renew her focus on diet and exercise. She recently dove into a 21-day challenge that requires lots of vegetables and lean protein and no dairy, grains, sugar or fruit. She also spends lots of time in her garden. “I do everything I did before except shovel snow,” she says.

Of all the challenges, however, learning how to manage stress took the most focus. “There’s so much stress for anybody who works and raises kids,” she says. “I love my solitude now. I love going to lunch or dinner with friends, but home is my sanctuary. And helping others makes a world of difference.”

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