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Heart Month: Grandpa's heart on the mend for 33 years

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UHN is celebrating Heart Month with courageous stories of the heart. Thanks to patients from The Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and Toronto Rehab's Cardiac Rehab program for sharing them with us.

Michael Brown.jpg
Michael Brown, 79, suffered his first heart attack at the age of 46.

Today, he says his life has been saved by UHN's Cardiac Rehab Program. (Photo: UHN)

Michael Brown was only 46 when he suffered his first heart attack. It was the first of many heart incidents to come– including one the day before his first grandchild, Sarah, was born.

Michael nearly died– almost missing the chance to meet Sarah and, eventually, eight other grandkids.

Having had a heart attack the day before Sarah's birth, Michael was rushed to UHN's Toronto General Hospital.

Without hesitation, his daughter and her husband packed up two-day-old Sarah and made the trip from Cleveland, Ohio, to Toronto, so Michael had the chance to meet his granddaughter.

Six heart emergencies, two bypass surgeries and a pacemaker

Since that first heart attack in 1979, he's suffered six cardiac incidents, including a heart attack, bypass surgery, and the installation of a pacemaker– all the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre over the 33 years.

"I have a good life," said Michael. "I know it's because of the first-class care I've received at Toronto General, Toronto Rehab and other hospitals through the years."

'Anything to stay alive'

When Michael had his first heart attack, he was a chronic smoker with a demanding career in the textile importation business.

The deterioration of his heart left him no choice but to make significant lifestyle changes.

"Stopping work was the hardest part for me," Michael recalled. "Over the years, I've tried to get back into the business world, but there's no way to do it and keep my heart healthy. And, I would do anything to stay alive."

His daughter, Michelle, remembers the difficulty he had leaving his career.

"Work, like many, was a part of his identity," Michelle said. "My dad had to find a new sense of self in addition to facing the reality of his health."

Cardiac rehab key

The multiple heart incidents took a toll on Michael's heart After his first bypass, doctors sent him for cardiac rehabilitation at Toronto General Hospital . Today he participates in cardiac rehab at Toronto Rehab.

Since he began, the rehab programs have evolved considerably.  Today, it includes educational sessions, nutrition consultations, medical support and an exercise regimen.

Now at the age of 79, Michael attends a Rumsey Centre program with his Cardiac Rehab Supervisor, Rob Bertelink.

Weekly rehab classes include walking, light resistance training and the chance to learn about how to maintain a healthy heart.

He also walks four other times a week– outside in warm months and in a mall during the cold months. At nearly 80 years old, he totals 12 to 20 kilometres each week.

Walking slowly a 'torture'

"I have a type A personality, which makes it torture to walk slowly," Michael said. "I had to learn to pace myself at cardiac rehab so I didn't put extra stress on my heart. It was the most challenging part of the program for me."

His supervisor is pleased with his progress.

"For Michael, introducing the right exercise program and a healthy heart diet to his life wasn't a choice," Rob said. "If he wants to stay alive he knows it has to be a priority. Michael is a great example of what you should do."

Rob noted that the biggest change in lifestyle for Michael has been following a strict diet. To prevent heart failure, he can only consume 1.5 litres of fluid and less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

"Because of Michael's heart condition, we know that if he didn't follow this diet, his heart would fail and his lungs would fill up with water, he wouldn't be able to breathe and would have great difficulty moving. The usual fix requires a hospital stay to remove the fluid," Rob said.

'Gives people back their lives'

Despite the challenges, Michael knows it's saved his life.

"Toronto Rehab's Cardiac Rehab program has done so much for me and other patients," he said. "It gives people back their lives."

Michelle watched her father overcome denial of his health condition and finally embrace a new lifestyle. She knows it's not always easy.

"He's stuck with cardiac rehab because he's aware it makes a huge difference in his heart function," she said. "He has great respect for the Cardiac Rehab team and the regimen they have him on. That respect keeps him disciplined."

Lifesaving partner

Ann has been Michael's life partner for more than 20 years and one of the reasons he's still alive.

"Ann keeps me on track with my health," said Michael. "I know if I didn't have Ann, I wouldn't be here today."

Ann often walks with Michael, and jokes it's hard to keep up with his long strides.

They're thankful for the numerous adventures they've shared together – including trips to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Grand Canyon and the Maritimes— that wouldn't have been possible without the cardiac care he's received.

Michael's legacy

Michael's family has supported him and his health journey. Seeing what he's gone through has had an effect on them too.

"My dad's long history with heart disease has had the biggest impact on the younger generations of our family," Michelle said. "I'm a mother of four kids and I continually reflect as a parent how I need to make healthy diet and lifestyle choices because heart disease is genetic."

Michael has made the most of the 33 years he's had since his first heart attack in 1979. He's watched his three children become parents and had the opportunity to develop a relationship with each of his nine grandkids.

He even got to celebrate Sarah's graduation from university and her first job as a civil engineer in Texas.


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