Martial arts helps heart attack recovery

Being fit enough to get a black belt in Tae Kwon Do didn’t stop Paul Foley from having a heart attack – but it certainly helped him survive.

Now 71, the Dunedin-based motor mechanic was 49 years old when, while entertaining a visitor with his wife on a relaxing Saturday afternoon, he felt pain in his chest. 

At first, he thought the pain was due to the push-ups he’d done recently.

“My muscles have been hurting for about 35 years from martial arts – they always hurt. But this time, the pain got worse and worse until it was like there was an elephant on my chest. It wouldn’t have hurt any more if they’d cut both of my arms off.”

Luckily, both his wife and visitor were nurses, and they called an ambulance immediately. Paul was rushed to hospital, where it was confirmed he had a complete blockage of an artery to the heart muscle.

With the more advanced treatments available today, Paul would likely have been taken immediately to unblock the artery with stents. But at that time, he was treated using medication. 

“I was a very sick boy,” he remembers. “Just walking around home and going out to the mailbox was an effort, and I’d have to have a rest at the mailbox before I could come back in again.”

Just days later, Paul felt so unwell that he returned to the hospital. 

“I actually drove myself to the emergency department, and I got there and they said, ‘you’re not going anywhere’.”

He was sent to the operating theatre immediately, and after two angioplasties, he began his slow road to recovery. 

“The first couple of years were really hard. Because I was a black belt, and because I was fit, it was a big kick to my being and I lost a lot of confidence. It really knocked me. It took a couple of years to get my confidence back again – and I can see where some people just give up.”

But armed with the discipline he learned from 10 years of Tae Kwon Do training, Paul gently and gradually built his fitness back up. 

“Every day I’d just go out and walk for 10 or 20 metres. And then a week later I might get up to 50 metres before I rested. I was out walking all the time – just gentle exercise.”

To address his high cholesterol – a condition that runs in his family – he made healthy changes to his diet and took the medication his doctors prescribed. 

Attending Heart Foundation meetings allowed him to spend time with other heart attack survivors and build up his confidence. He also left his job in “cold workshops with heavy lifting” and trained to become a motor mechanics tutor at a polytechnic.

Getting his health back required big lifestyle changes, but Paul made sure to stick with it. 

“You’ve got to keep trying. If you don’t try, your life is over.”

His hard work paid off. After around 18 months he gradually got back into martial arts training. He has now reached 4th Dan Black Belt – a level of expertise in Tae Kwon Do that’s several stages above black belt – and five years ago, he completed the four-day-long Milford Track in Fiordland. Though he retired at 65, he still works part-time at a local Warrant of Fitness testing station. 

Two years ago, Paul returned to hospital for heart palpitations, which began after he was dropped on his back during Tae Kwon Do training. But happily, the test results showed his heart was fit and strong.

“They had to turn the warning buzzers off when they did the electrocardiograph, because my resting heart rate is below 50,” says Paul. 

“They did an angiogram, and the surgeon said, at the present rate of my arteries closing up, they should be right until I’m 120 years old!

“So, being fit has a lot of good advantages, because the heart does some amazing things.”

Paul is grateful for the fitness he has gained from Tae Kwon Do, and also credits the training with giving him a greater sense of calm.

“That’s one of the reasons I keep on going, is it gives me a lot of peace. I don’t get aggravated in bad situations; I don’t lose my temper – whereas before I started martial arts, I think my emotions were all over the place. I’ve got a bit more stability now in terms of my emotions, and a lot more calmness.”