​​​Image of Mark Surchin and his daughter Allie
Mark Surchin and his daughter Allie completed a 15 kilometre run in June 2014 — 14 years after his heart attack.​ (Photo: Mark Surchin)

When Mark Surchin had a heart attack at 43 while playing hockey, he knew his body was sending a drastic alert that he needed to change how he was living.

"I decided to make significant lifestyle changes to prevent a future heart attack," said Surchin, a Toronto lawyer and father of two. "Because my heart attack was during exercise, I wanted medical supervision."

Surchin convinced his doctor to refer him to Toronto Rehab's Cardiac Rehab and Secondary Prevention Program.

"It was a structured program that made me feel more in control of my health," said Surchin.

No long-term support

After he completed the program in 2001, there was no further support.

"I continued to complete my cardiac rehab diary because I needed to be accountable and to have structure in my eating and exercise lifestyle," said Surchin. "I was so concerned I would relapse."

Three years after Surchin graduated, the program launched Take Charge – a cardiac rehab graduate program.

Rob Bertelink, cardiac rehab supervisor, Toronto Rehab, explained that patients expressed the need for formal support after they graduated from the program.

Managing heart disease 'for life'

"When you have heart disease you have heart disease for life and you need to manage it for life," said Bertelink. "Our graduated wanted support to make sure they stuck with it."

The program started offering an educational session each month on different cardiac rehab topics. Patients said they need more than just education – they needed structured exercise and peer support.

Eventually, Take Charge added two weekly exercise sessions on the track and a formal peer support program.

"We know that keeping people advised of advances and motivating them to lead a heart healthy lifestyle revitalizes their commitment to stick with the plan," said Bertelink. "Self-management is key to long-term heart health, but we know that most people need support and structure to be successful in staying on track."

One of a kind in GTA

Take Charge is the only program of its kind in the Greater Toronto Area. Approximately, 100 people attend each educational session and it's open to any graduate of a cardiac rehab program.

Thanks to funding from Scotiabank, Take Charge has expanded its reach by broadcasting educational sessions and tools via YouTube and other digital platforms.

Surchin was one of the first Take Charge participants and remains an active user. He leads a running group for grads and is an active mentor to patients.

 "There are periods in your life that take you off track from following your healthy lifestyle," said Surchin. "Take Charge, especially through peer support, helps you manage the times you slip so you can get back on track."

This spring marks the 10 year anniversary of Take Charge and the 100th educational lecture – it's how it all began. 

To celebrate, the program is hosting an interactive mini conference for graduates in partnership with community health providers.

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