From heart attack to heart health: what recovery really looks like

There are many life changes a person needs to make after suffering a major heart attack. For cardiac patient Shakeel Shaikh, his life changed 180 degrees.

When Shakeel first arrived at Scarborough Health Network (SHN) in 2018, he was in the worst shape of his life, suffering a heart attack, with one coronary artery completely blocked.

Up to this point, Shakeel had not considered how his lifestyle was impacting his health.

“I used to do whatever I wanted to do. I could eat what I wanted, as much as I wanted without thinking of the consequences,” he remembered.

Then he stopped breathing during his heart attack.

“They had to perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) on me to bring me back to life – and finding that out was very scary for me,” he recalled. “I knew I had to change my way of life.”

It was quite the journey before Shakeel was back on his feet. To help clear the blockage and regain his heart’s strength, Shakeel needed a coronary intervention procedure, including a stent placement. This treatment was performed at SHN’s cardiac centre and saved his life, but Shakeel would need to make some drastic lifestyle changes.

Fast-forward to 2022: with the help of SHN’s Regional Cardiovascular Rehab program, Shakeel is better managing his risk factors and is continuing to improve his heart health each day. Since enrolling, he’s received critical life coaching to help make better-informed decisions about his lifestyle. This included new tailored exercise plans, as well as education on diet, nutrition, medications and heart disease.

Shakeel’s life today requires a lot more discipline and work than before, but he knows the stakes are higher than ever.

“I don’t eat red meat anymore. I stick to chicken, fish, and vegetables – all portion controlled – and I walk each day,” he explained. “It’s very hard, but I know if I don’t follow these guidelines, it will hurt me. And that’s the big difference.”

Through the Regional Cardiovascular Rehab program, exercise therapists work with patients in restoring their heart health through activity and exercise, being mindful of physical or mental limitations brought on by heart disease. Cardiac patients, like Shakeel, also meet with staff nutritionists to ensure a healthy diet is a part of their lifestyle.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the Regional Cardiovascular Rehab program moved to offering virtual exercise and education classes online, with a focus on building “heart at home.” Shakeel has also learned to adjust his habits throughout the pandemic.

“After my ICD surgery, I went to the gym for my classes and continued walking. Now, I still walk and use the elliptical in my home for at least 10 to 15 minutes; whatever I can do,” he said. “My exercise therapist was amazing. She taught me exercises, what to do while at home, and encouraged me to document and journal my activities.”

Exercise therapist Kristen Doucette has played an integral role in helping Shakeel regain his heart health. She said he was an inspiration to work with.

“He never gives up. Shakeel has experienced several major setbacks over the past few years, including his heart attack back in 2018, a heart failure diagnosis, and his implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) procedure for a heart rhythm abnormality, just recently. The pandemic has posed several challenges for our cardiac rehab patients, and despite these challenges, Shakeel continues to demonstrate he is driven to get better. He should be extremely proud of himself for his dedication to living a heart healthy life – I know I am!”

The Regional Cardiovascular Rehab program not only provides day-to-day advice, but education that is the pillar for a lifelong heart healthy journey.

“We want to see you succeed after you complete the program,” explained Kristen. “We hope we can teach you to take charge and control of your life, and make decisions to improve the quality of life.”

As for Shakeel, he continues to take it one day at a time.

“I am forever grateful to SHN and the amazing cardiovascular rehab team. They have taken amazing care of me. They’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty, and day by day, I continue to improve.”

Heart disease is preventable. For more information about the Regional Cardiovascular Rehab program, visit gethearthealthy.com.