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Heart attack an opportunity to “give back”

As a fitness trainer for 40 years, Joseph was surprised when he had a heart attack. Now he’s using his skills to help others on their journey with heart disease.

For Joseph, physical activity has always been a major part of life. He started his career as a fitness trainer in the military in the 1970s, and left the army in the 1980s to open his own gym in Mt Maunganui.

“Being a trainer for 40 years, fitness has been my life. I’ve been involved in physical activity and training lots and lots of other people. ”

Despite this passion for physical wellbeing, Joseph, a husband of forty years and father of two adult daughters, is no stranger to serious illness. Back in 2000 he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and seven years later he was diagnosed with a growth in the cervical region of his upper vertebrae.

“A tumour was growing in my spine, squashing my spinal cord. I was in extreme pain for up to 20 hours a day. I could hardly walk or talk. It changed my whole life, from the perspective of what I could do and what I could no longer do.”

After the successful outcome of a high-risk operation, Joseph found himself on the long journey to recovery.

“Rehabilitation is ongoing, trying to regain balance and cognitive abilities. They’ve all improved but I find that I fall short of where I want to be. So there are emotional problems that I have to deal with and continue to do so.”

As he was dealing with his recovery from surgery and his diabetes, Joseph never realised he might also be a candidate for a heart attack.

Dizzy feeling sets off ‘alarm bells’

The day of the event, back in 2016, started no differently to any other.

“I got up, as I normally do, early in the morning and went to have my shower,” recalls Joseph.

“My chest and around my shoulder area was feeling sore, but I’d just gotten back into doing some weight training and I thought it was just the effects of that. I tried to do some limbering up movements to see if I could free my shoulder up.”

He felt ok for a short while but then he started to feel dizzy which “set off alarm bells”. Joseph woke his wife, who immediately called the ambulance. The ambulance team arrived within 10 minutes.

“I happen to know one of the guys who was part of that team and he was telling me, ‘You’re having a heart attack Joe’. He gave me some spray that goes under the tongue and told me to just relax and went through his routine, and took me into hospital.”

Joseph arrived at the hospital just before 7am. Within 15 minutes or so he was being wheeled into theatre to have an angiogram – he ended up having three stents inserted.

“In the theatre, I was looking at the screen and the doctor was talking to me and explaining what he was doing and I was watching as he was doing it. That sort of captivated me. Then, when he finished, he said, ‘Well, I’m done here. Leave here, go on and have a happy life, you should be fine’. So then they put me back into recovery.”

Joseph was back on the ward by 10am, less than five hours after the initial pains began in the shower.

“It was fortuitous because I went in on a Thursday and it just happened to be the day that the cardiologist came across from the Waikato and I was the first cab off the rank. I was in there pretty quick and then done, out of the way.”

The journey to recovery

Once out of hospital, the next step on the road to Joseph’s recovery was cardiac rehabilitation.

“I found that really interesting and really helpful and supportive,” says Joseph.

Another part of the recovery process involved coming to terms with the fact he wasn’t invincible.

“When I was diagnosed with diabetes back in 2000, I went into denial. I thought I was still Superman – thought, ‘No, it’s all rubbish’. My understanding is that’s what lots of people go through, and I was no different."

But after the heart attack that changed.

“My diabetes not being under control was a contributing factor to my heart attack. And I’d had to have all my teeth out, the gums were pretty bad, so there was that. Then to top it off I had the heart attack. I had an epiphany, as you do from time to time, I thought, ‘No, this is real stuff, you need to settle down’.”

Joseph made a concerted effort to improve his eating habits.

“I knew that I had to be more conscious of what I was eating. I thought that I was eating reasonably well, but I wasn’t actually eating healthily. My definition of eating healthily didn’t marry up with the clinical or official definition and that was really a simple thing. I did my research and looked at diabetes to see how to bring that under control.

“I started to think, ‘Ok, what are the fundamentals?’  Moreover, ‘If I applied these fundamentals, would it really make a difference?’, and of course it did.”

Like anyone recovering from a heart attack, Joseph has had his down moments. Thankfully, though, he had others to help him through.

“Last year, I was talking to a lady at a cardiac clinic and she saw me at a down time and she told me, ‘You realise Joseph, you’re actually here, and a lot of people don’t even make it after one of these events’. That was really eye opening, it shocked me about a bit, and so it was time to get over myself and just get on with it.”

Helping others to stop heart disease

Now Joseph is putting his energy back into the community, educating others about heart disease and helping them change their mindsets about their own health.

“The task is so huge, reconditioning people’s thinking from a, ‘She’ll be right – everything’s ok’ mentality to, ‘Things are more serious’. So I place a lot of emphasis on the psychology of change and how to sustain change because everything takes time. Any whichever way you look, you’ve still got everything stacked against you, but you have to start somewhere.”

Joseph has worked with Sport Bay of Plenty, the Western Bay of Plenty Primary Health Organisation, the Bay of Plenty District Health Board and local iwi to support cardiac intervention and rehabilitation programmes for a wide range of local community groups, Māori and other ethnic groups. 

“I figure my contribution to the people that I work with, people I teach, and those who I reach in the community, allows me to think that maybe I am making a difference to society. I guess I’m lucky because I’m going face-to-face with people every day and they’re not the same faces every day. I get to share and I get the opportunity to team up with others to share the message as well. It gives me purpose.”


Shared June 2019

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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  • Wayne 22 November 2020

    Hi Joseph, it would be great to catch up at some time if you like. Cheers & God bless

  • gordon 8 August 2019

    Hi great inspirational story

  • Joseph 5 August 2019

    Hi Jess, thank you for your comment much appreciated. I’m so thankful to be alive. I, like many others have got another shot at life…Family, friends, peace & love and life itself.
    A great big ‘Thanks’ to the St John, the doctors and nurses, to my sweetheart, our daughters and some very caring people…
    Ngā mihi nui e te whanau tā tou katoa…

  • Jess 1 August 2019

    Very inspiring Joseph! Awesome to see how you’ve turned it all into a positive.