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Exercise and volunteering keep the heart young

Rosemary Harris has more reason than most to volunteer as a collector for the Heart Foundation Big Heart Appeal in February 2023. Unfortunately, she knows first-hand what it’s like to suffer from a heart condition.

Rosemary Harris sits on a black wrought iron chair on her patio. She is wearing glasses and a pale blue cardigan.

“I was on holiday in Singapore in 2009,” she recalls. “Typical that these things always happen abroad, but I woke in the middle of the night with a racing heart and knew something was wrong.”

After spending three nights in a hospital, she was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and put on medication that appeared to be doing the trick for almost four years.

Suspected inflammation leads to hospital visit

“Then I was overseas again in Sydney in 2013 and had the flu!” she says. “The doctor I saw thought it was inflammation around the heart, but a week later, it was worse. I went to my own GP, who sent me to the hospital.”

It was apparent that Rosemary was having a heart attack. She was admitted for an angiogram, during which her heart stopped, and she was resuscitated.

“It was a seriously life-threatening experience, but once I had the stents put in, I started to recover quite well,” she says. “It turned out that the cause may have been the radiotherapy I received back in the 1980s when I had Hodgkin’s disease, which left scarring on my arteries.”

Back then, radiotherapy was much stronger than what is used today.

Further angiogram required

“When pain and breathlessness on walking returned last year, my doctor recommended I meet with Dr Gerry Wilkins. He told me I needed another angiogram, which then became a bypass, and I remained in hospital for a week,” she says.

Rosemary now follows the recommendations of the Heart Foundation by building physical activity into her day. She walks several kilometres daily, which has been a favourite pastime for most of her adult life.

“I’ve been volunteering with the Heart Foundation since 2007. I’m now secretary for a support and exercise group in Otago for people with heart problems.

“You’ll also see me every year at the supermarket with the collection buckets during the Big Heart Appeal in February,” she says.

“I still have some minor problems with my health, but I’m determined to work through my exercise regime and build movement and strength into my days. It’s rewarding to notice improvements and achieve those small wins that are so fulfilling. I advise anyone in the same position to take the advice of doctors and the Heart Foundation seriously,” she says.

Maintaining a healthy heart is key

Rosemary has also been diagnosed with high cholesterol and has been on medication since 2013. She appreciates the advice from the Heart Foundation and the information meetings about maintaining a healthy heart and lifestyle.

“I really love being a part of the solution to improving people’s health,” she says. “But we volunteers need more support, especially as numbers have dwindled over the last few years.”

Sign up to volunteer

Heart disease is New Zealand’s single biggest killer, claiming the lives of more than one person every 90 minutes. Heart disease can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. But by coming together and volunteering in the community, we can raise vital funds for life-saving heart research.

If you’d like to volunteer as a street collector for the Big Heart Appeal on Friday 24 and Saturday 25 February, please visit