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Man rises up against the ‘family curse’

Stuart Armstrong decided early this year that he needed to make some big changes in his life – which is exactly what he’s done.

Stuart freely admits that he’s used his heart condition as an excuse not to exercise in the past.

That all changed earlier this year when Stuart, a 38-year-old systems accountant from Gisborne, decided to make some changes after an over-indulgent summer.

“I gave the guy in the mirror a bit of a talking-to about needing to stay healthy so my kids would have a dad for as long as possible,” he says.

Stuart signed up for a series of walking events, including the Wellington Half Marathon in July.

“I'm walking the Wellington Half Marathon to prove to myself, my kids, and other people with cardiac conditions that the hurdles we face in life don't have to define who we are.”

Stuart is tackling the event as a Heart Racer, which means he’s raising funds to support the Heart Foundation's great work in Gisborne.

“I got a lot of helpful information from the Foundation's website at the time I was getting my head around my initial cardiac diagnosis,” he explains. “I also wanted to use my story to help people."

Stuart has a condition called Lamin A/C Familial Dilated Cardiomyopathy, which causes the heart to become dilated or enlarged. As a result, the heart can become weak and unable to pump blood efficiently around the body.

He remembers as a teenager hearing extended family members talk offhandedly about the ‘family curse’ of people dying young from heart disease. That didn’t really hit home until his father died in 2006.

A year later, Stuart visited his GP and asked for a heart check.

“My GP spent quite some time looking at my ECG printout, then turned and said with a very serious look on his face ‘Your rhythm has changed since we did your last ECG’. I'd read Dad's clinical notes, so I knew immediately what that meant. I had a pacemaker implanted later that year.”

Stuart later tested positive for a genetic mutation, which meant his condition was more complicated and dangerous than originally thought. Consequently, his pacemaker was swapped for an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).

The cardiologist who inserted Stuart’s ICD was Dr Spencer Heald, who received research funding from the Heart Foundation to complete an Overseas Training Fellowship in 1990.

Stuart and his wife Bridget have been married for 13 years and they have an eight-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

His condition doesn't adversely affect his daily life now but the year or two after his genetic diagnosis were very stressful.

“We've largely dealt with all that now - but it was certainly the most stressful time we've faced as a couple,” he recalls.

“Our son knows that ‘Daddy has a pacemaker because his heart doesn't beat properly by itself’. Our daughter isn't old enough yet to understand that.”

On his way towards the Wellington Half Marathon, Stuart's already completed the Martinborough Half Marathon and the Ohope Half Marathon.

“I'm on a mission to be as prepared as I can for the Wellington event. Now that so many people have donated so generously, I have a bunch of people's expectations to live up to.”