Walking against the odds for the Heart Foundation

Lee Russell has lived an amazing life full of worldly experiences, but nothing could have prepared him for a heart attack in August 2020.

Lee Russell wearing a Heart Foundation t-shirt

“I served in the military in Bosnia, Rwanda and the Gulf War,” Lee says. “I also volunteered on rescue teams in Christchurch after the earthquakes but my heart event was a truly life-altering moment.”

He was placed on blood thinners to flush out a partially blocked artery and keep a faulty valve working but nine months later Lee feared the worst had happened again while driving to work.

“I felt very unwell,” he says. “I could have collapsed in my car but I somehow made it to the emergency department in Dunedin. Fifteen minutes later I was having open heart surgery.”

Lee had his valve replaced thanks to the quick work of some amazing surgeons and just two months later he was in the gym preparing for a physical challenge.

“I’m so thankful to everyone in the hospital from the cleaners to the surgeons,” he says. “I was given a red cushion and a talk by a member of the Heart Foundation team in Dunedin. She was so inspiring and I thought to myself, ‘Perhaps I can raise enough cash so that a few hundred people could have those cushions that make so much difference in the early days of recovery’. That’s when I decided to walk the Kepler track in Fiordland to raise money for the Heart Foundation.”

The Kepler track is a 60km loop that takes three to four days to traverse. It is one of nine New Zealand Great Walks and is one of the toughest, with true wilderness and views of giant beech trees and vast fern forests. Lee set up a Give a Little page online and strove to train his body for what would turn out to be a huge struggle, given that he had recently had his ankle fused and in his late fifties, was no longer as fit as he used to be. On top of this, 80% of those who complete the Kepler track are under 30, so for Lee the challenge was immense.

“I definitely could have trained more for carrying such a heavy pack,” he admits. “And over the four days there were a lot of people passing me, but I never gave up.”

After deciding to walk solo as a result of friends not being able to make it, Lee powered through the pain despite constant thoughts of giving in and calling for a helicopter to rescue him out in the wilderness.

“By the time I finished I wasn’t sure what planet I was on,” he laughs. “Luckily my wife was waiting for me at the end of the track and treated me to a spa to help me recover.”

Lee is currently studying for a level 6 diploma in Occupational Health and Safety at SIT and is a Health and Safety Advisor for Southern District Health Board. He sees more fundraising in his future but thinks that his body will need to rest for at least a year after this immense mental and physical test.

“I want to do another great walk and raise even more money,” he says. “It just feels like the right thing to do. I’ve always been caring for others and I hope to make a real difference to the lives of other people with heart issues.”

Lee’s next walk will be from Picton to Bluff, which stands at an astonishing 911kms and will be no easy feat. He plans to begin the walk from the tip of the South Island in late 2023 and hopes to be there before 2024.

“Watch this space!” he says. “I’m really looking forward to raising more money for the Heart Foundation and this time I’m aiming to be in peak physical condition.”

The Heart Foundation is New Zealand’s heart charity, leading the fight against our country’s single biggest killer – heart disease. We rely on the generosity and goodwill of people like you to support our vital work. To start your own fundraising journey, visit fundraise.heartfoundation.org.nz.