Fun-run organiser’s inspiring recovery

When Matt Sillars' family history of heart disease caught up with him, it came as a shock. But his experience of training for sports events has helped him make a remarkable recovery.

Matt had been fit all his life, competing in sports events and enjoying mountain running, tramping and climbing. He also had a physical job as an events manager, and even helped organise Invercargill’s Surf to City fun run – for which the Heart Foundation is the charity partner.

Yet in June last year, a few months short of his 60th birthday, the Southland resident began experiencing significant lack of breath as well as mild chest pain when lifting something heavy or climbing a steep hill. At first he tried to ignore it, as his symptoms would stop if he took a rest. But after a week of persistent headaches, Matt went to his doctor.

“No ambulance was required, nor did I have an identifiable event as such. I just knew it was time, and ‘dobbed myself in’ to my GP.”

An ECG showed Matt had previously had a minor heart event, and he was sent to hospital where he failed a treadmill test. 

“The surgeon did an angiogram and found at least two arteries were ‘beyond stenting’, and therefore needed full grafts,” says Matt.

Though he was fit, ate well and had never smoked, Matt did have a family history of heart problems.

“I have the worst genetics, with my father having had three separate lots of cardiac surgery over the past 20 years. Coincidentally, my mother also ended up having cardiac surgery in Wellington while I was at home doing my rehab!”

However, Matt says his fitness helped delay his heart problems, as well as making it easier to recover. 

“My surgeon Ivor Galvin commented that if I hadn’t historically been so fit and active, he may have seen me up to 20 years earlier.”

When it came to recovery, Matt made use of his experience with training for sports events.

“The philosophy I have developed is to treat rehab like training for a big event, like a Kepler Challenge. I worked out very early that there would be no gain without sustained effort, so this has been my attitude and methodology – especially once I got my surgeon’s sign-off and had that extra confidence and reassurance that I couldn’t do harm,” he says.

“I am constantly surprised when people comment on how early I went back to work."

At the same time, he made sure to follow the advice of his doctors and be patient with himself as he regained his strength.

“I knew all decisions and recommendations were for the greater good, so I just accepted that. I also understood that I was starting from scratch in terms of walking again, balance and co-ordination, and this would take as long as it needed to.”

He is now back at work and will be helping to pull together this year’s Surf to City event, along with the Heart Foundation’s Southland Heart Health Advocate, Nicola Mason.

Matt says he is well on the road to recovery, and is continuing to build his fitness.

“I work constantly to be able to get back to my previous life: landscaping, mountain-biking, running, tramping – and I wonder if I might still have another Kepler Challenge left in me.”

The Heart Foundation would like to thank Matt for sharing his story to help raise awareness of heart disease and support our 2016 Annual Appeal.