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A tale of triumph over heart disease

Wellingtonian Jeff McEwan, photographer, father and husband, is living life to its fullest, though just four years ago he was on the operating table receiving life-saving surgery for blockages in his arteries. Now he is volunteering for the Heart Foundation and serving as a beacon of hope for heart health.

"I've been participating in the Heart Foundation Big Heart Appeal street collection since February 2020, and the last two years I’ve been a volunteer area coordinator,” says Jeff. “I'm passionate about helping others in the community and getting the word out there that heart disease can happen to anyone.”

Just four months prior to his involvement, Jeff was living a normal life, albeit with relatively long working hours and a great deal of stress from his job.

“I was probably a bit overworked,” he admits. “I used to play football as well to a really high level and I was always super fit and going for runs and hiking up mountains, but one day that all changed.”

The turning point in Jeff's life came in October 2019 when he faced two heart attacks. The first incident unfolded during a particularly demanding workday, immersed in a photography shoot. 

"I was pushing myself too hard, and it caught up with me," Jeff recalls, highlighting the probable contributing factors to this sudden and alarming event. “I didn’t have any history of heart disease in the family and to be honest I didn’t really know what was going on at first.”

Jeff went to lie down and tried to control his breathing but he was experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack.

“My hands were shaking and I was very light-headed,” he says. “But I just put it down to low-blood sugar and tried to brush it off.”

The second heart attack struck at night while Jeff was asleep, leaving him with a sense of disquiet upon waking. 

"I woke up feeling weird the next morning and knew I had to do something," he recounts. Jeff's vigilance led him to seek medical attention. He went to his doctor and was advised to take an electrocardiogram (ECG) and a blood test. The latter revealed elevated troponin levels, a clear indicator of heart muscle damage.

“My coronary arteries were obstructed by plaque buildup, and it was actually really serious, which surprised me in a way as I thought I was indestructible.”

Jeff’s situation was critical and could have had dire consequences if left untreated. Within a matter of days he was undergoing an angioplasty operation to have stents inserted into his arteries.

"It was a close call," Jeff remembers as he describes the procedure, which restored unobstructed blood flow to his heart. “At one point in the middle of the night I technically died for around ten seconds as my heart stopped. They had to restart my heart and for my family watching it was a really scary experience.”

Emerging from this harrowing experience, Jeff not only survived but thrived. He now dedicates his boundless energy and enthusiasm to his work with the Heart Foundation, using his story as a source of motivation for others. 

"I want to inspire others to take care of their hearts," he says, showing his commitment to educating and informing those around him. “I want my mates to know that this could happen to them or someone they know and love. If they know about it, they can hopefully take steps to prevent it from happening in the future.”

Jeff's journey is a testament to the power of awareness, prevention and support. It demonstrates that with the right knowledge, we can conquer heart disease.

“I now live my life at a much slower pace than I used to,” he says. “I still have a busy job and I try to keep fit but I definitely avoid putting too much stress and strain on my body and mind.”

Jeff knows all too well that heart disease is a potential threat that knows no boundaries of age, fitness or lifestyle. And this is why he wants to spread the message every February by volunteering as a street collector.

“About four months after my operation I got involved with the Heart Foundation because I know that they support heart research through the fundraising they do,” he says. “We always need more volunteers in Wellington and I’ve taken it on as my own personal mission to find as many people as possible who are willing to help out.”

With the dual purpose of raising funds and raising awareness, Jeff channels all of his energy into the annual appeal.

"I want to tell people that heart problems don't care about your age or how healthy you look. They can surprise you," he emphasises. "I’ve been given another shot at life and I want to make the most of it. Part of that is sharing my story and you never know who you might talk to and end up helping."

The Big Heart Appeal street collection will be held on Friday 23 February and Saturday 24 February 2024, and the Heart Foundation is currently looking for more amazing volunteers like Jeff to show their big hearts.

Heart disease can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, even someone you love – sign up as a Big Heart Appeal street collection volunteer to help fund life-saving heart research today.

Sign up now