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Ironman contestant credits rigorous exercise regime with saving his life

Father and grandfather, Shayne Cunis, never felt ill but when he had a regular heart check-up one month before he was supposed to compete in another Ironman competition, the result changed his life forever.

Shayne Cunis, executive programme director of Watercare’s $1.2b Central Interceptor project, was in Portugal after an Ironman competition in 2022 when he started feeling strange. 

“I oversee construction of our giant underground Central Interceptor wastewater tunnel, so I don’t actually do any tunnelling or physical work,” he says. “But I’ve always been fit and active and try to keep on top of my health, especially after I found out that I had high blood pressure over 20 years ago. And now I’ve been doing Ironman events since 2018, so you have to be super fit for that.” 

The Ironman is a rigorous test of endurance raced over a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42.2km run, originally started on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in 1978 as a bet between swimmers, cyclists and runners to find the fittest. 

“I got across the finish line in Portugal okay but then two weeks later I was having breakfast in Lisbon and I felt a little funny,” he says. “My resting heart rate was usually in the 40s at that time, but for some reason my heart was racing. Apart from that I didn’t feel sick, just a little weird.” 

He carried on as normal but decided it was time to see his cardiologist for a routine heart check-up.

Results and underlying health issues

An appointment was made for February 2023, and though Shayne had been diagnosed with diabetes in 2012, he had always been proactive with his health and he wasn’t too worried. 

“After I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes following a blood test I thought it would be a good idea to go more regularly for heart checks,” he says.   

“As I had high blood pressure and diabetes, two big risk factors for heart disease, I thought it would be wise to go see a cardiologist at least once a year,” says Shayne. “They were very honest with me from the start. They told me there was no cure for diabetes but if I stayed healthy and exercised regularly then I was giving myself the best possible chance.” 

His visits were interrupted initially by Covid-19 and then by a knee injury that put him out of action for a good few months in 2021 and 2022. 

“I hadn’t been to see them for a while because I was confident my heart was fine,” he says. “But then after Lisbon I knew it was time. I had another Ironman scheduled in the calendar for March 2023 so the appointment was four weeks before that.” 

Warning signs at heart check-up and surgery

“I had carried on with my life as normal and went to see my cardiologist in high spirits,” says Shayne, “but he mentioned when he was checking my heart with a CT scan that he noticed a slight difference in my numbers.” 

Shayne asked what that could mean but it was a while before he knew the answers.  

“Later on, after all the calcium data had been collected from the heart scan, I was told I needed an angiogram – to decide if they could put stents into my arteries.” 

The decision was made that stents would not be possible and that Shayne may need to have an operation. 

“And then just four weeks later, there I was, undergoing open-heart double bypass surgery,” says Shayne. “It was the weirdest thing because I never had a heart attack or even felt ill.” 

“The hospital staff were incredible,” he says. “In total the surgery was only two and a half hours long so it could have been worse!” 

Recovery and advice

“When I had knee surgery, I was off my feet for four months,” says Shayne. “The irony is that the day after my life-saving heart surgery I was told to get up and onto my feet – just 12 hours after waking up!” 

Shayne thinks that after he started his Ironman training regime in 2017, it likely aided his heart and prevented him from having a heart attack at some point over the next few years. 

“I was in such good shape,” he says. “It probably saved my life. If I’d done nothing and hadn’t been exercising regularly, there’s a good chance I would have experienced a heart event. I was also eating better and drinking less thanks to the great advice of the Heart Foundation. 

“I was advised that there would be a change in my mental state and this was right – I was paranoid every time I felt pain in my chest afterwards. It was great to have someone there to talk about everything and explain it all to me so clearly. I was also shown all the Heart Foundation resources about returning to a normal life and getting active again slowly.” 

Shayne has also learned how to deal with such a stressful situation. 

“There are a whole range of emotions you go through after surgery,” he says. “The waiting is the hardest part. And for my family it was even worse because all they can do is watch. I’m fortunate that I was able to surround myself with good people and I’m very thankful for the amazing clinicians and surgeons we have here in New Zealand.” 

Clinical exercise physiologists have also provided Shayne with monitored personal exercise programmes, designed to not only improve cardio and muscular strength, but give him increased confidence to continue with his own personal training. 

Employer heart checks and future endeavours

“A real positive to come out of this is that Ghella Abergeldie JV, our construction partners, have now changed the way they do annual health check-ups for everyone who works on the Central Interceptor project,” says Shayne. “And they’ve already picked up two employees who had imminent heart issues, including one guy who’s just had a quintuple bypass.” 

Shayne believes that all workplaces should follow their lead and re-evaluate the way in which they look after the health of their staff. 

“A lot of people never get checked,” he says. “And I hear people all the time talk about family members who have died from heart attacks, but they could have been prevented.” 

In terms of the future, Shayne is planning to get back to Ironman competition as soon as he is able. 

“I was really close to the edge,” he says. “But now I’ve been given a second chance, I’m going to do my utmost to get through my rehab and then I want to do an Ironman next year in March 2024. 

“I did want to do the Western Australia Ironman in December 2023 but it’s not going to be possible,” he says. “I’ll have a treadmill test in November and keep going to all my heart appointments and see how I go from there.” 

Shayne is allowed to visit the Central Interceptor’s 16 sites across Auckland but he won’t be going underground to see how the giant wastewater tunnel is progressing just yet. 

“The tunnel is more than 6km long and at the moment that’s too far for me to be able to self-evacuate,” he says. “I also couldn’t manage to climb out using any ladders so I would be more of a hazard to others. I’ve started roaming around the surface works but I don’t want to put anyone at risk.” 

His main outlook is now focussing on his recovery and ensuring that his heart is fit for the demands of his lifestyle. 

“The first few weeks were brutal but I’m getting stronger every day,” he says. “I’m just so grateful that I can put this chapter behind me and move on with my life.”