Finding the road back to health after a heart incident

“You don’t think these things can happen to you,” says this heart attack victim. “It’s surreal.” But the Wellness Institute in north Winnipeg – like the Reh-Fit in the south – helps people with heart ailments find a healthy lifestyle.

By Joan Cohen

Karen Young Jamieson with daughter Chantal. You can’t afford to sit around and let your body get soft and heavy.

Time, and yes something else, had worked its magic. The voice on the phone is strong, the world is good, it says confidently, the note it strikes comfortably upbeat. “I want to be on this earth for many years yet,” the voice continues. “So I know I have to walk, regularly and hard, with a towel around my neck to soak up the perspiration, my breathing fast, giving my heart a workout and making it strong.  I can’t just sit around the house and let my body become soft and heavy.”

It was the voice of a 59-year-old mother. Eighteen months ago Karen Young Jamieson had been released unceremoniously, without notice, from a job she had enjoyed and served in with devotion for 25 years. Nine months later, in July, 2011, she had seen her world crumble as she suffered, in shocked devastation, the effects of a mild heart attack.

“You don’t think these things can happen to you,” explains Karen. “It was surreal.” It was stress that did it, she sums up. The job loss. A sick husband. The death of a beloved sister-in-law. The anticipation and arrival of a new grandchild. And so there was a week of tests and preliminary recovery at St. Boniface hospital; the hospital’s proposal that she sign up for the cardiac program at the Wellness Institute, an appendix of Seven Oaks Hospital; her doctor’s endorsation and her own recognition that she was in deep need of a lifestyle change. And on Aug. 31, 2011, nervous (after all wasn’t she at risk with that newly weakened heart of hers?) and still disconsolate she showed up to begin the 16-week program.

Karen met with an intake counsellor, was put through stress and other tests and was found to be in far less than ideal physical shape. Her customary exercise, confined to walking at a comfortable pace, had not been beneficial.

The weeks ahead were filled with classes and a torrent of information, for which she will always be grateful. There was a session with a psychologist. (She told him she was despondent; he told her that was to be expected: that mood would pass, but she could check in with him any time. She hasn’t felt the need.) There was a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, a dietician – the latter a particular help as she struggled to revise her diet and home cooking methods.

Karen had stopped smoking just before the heart attack, but was left to work on her weight (35 pounds too heavy, she succeeded in losing 12 pounds by year’s end, and several inches around the waist and hips by year’s end). She was advised to avoid – or use little – salt, reduce fat intake, consume fewer carbohydrates and above all to get moving. Her earlier diet, she says, had been pretty sensible, except for the salt and fat.

The cardiac program starts off slowly. There are four weeks of supervised workout and the classes. After that, the patients are on their own; the expert staff, though, is always there for them. After the program ends, patients are encouraged to continue their exercise regime and attachment to the Institute and its staff, by taking out a membership.

Karen’s despair and desolation stayed with her for two or three weeks after she started the program and then, she says, her mood lightened. Going through the courses, talking to others who were experiencing the same turmoils, and then realizing the support that was there for her, in her family, in the Wellness Institute, she was suddenly feeling a new strength.

Three times a week, for about 1¼ hours, she walked the track in the large, windows-encircled gym, and climbed on a treadmill and exercise bike;  it was a disciplined workout supervised in the early days by Wellness staff. The gym was a busy place; cardiac patients mingled with others, busy with their own exercise efforts. The cardiac people each wore a tag on their running shoe; if one of them had a health crisis, their medical situation would be instantly available and appropriate care would be summoned from nearby Seven Oaks hospital. Participants in the program were safe. Patients moving on from the cardiac program continue to wear the identification.

There were 12 cardiac trainees with Karen in those early July days but at the end, she says, only four. Karen had no doubts about her own next step. “The reality was that Wellness was going to benefit me. I was losing weight, building muscle, gaining strength, all of this beneficial to my body, my mind, my spirit. You see other people in bad shape and you realize again you are doing this to prevent future mayhem.”

Karen has twice renewed her membership, nowadays coming three times weekly for 2½ to three hours at a stretch. “I knew that if I didn’t go to Wellness I probably wouldn’t exercise. At Wellness I’m with people who want to stay healthy. I don’t want to lose that benefit that I get from being there.”

Baldev Turka, 67, retired two years ago after 30 years as a sheet metal work with Bristol Aerospace.

Some time ago he learned he had a scar on his heart and by March, a year ago, that heart was clearly slowing him down. Baldev was feeling ever more tired when he exerted himself. He called his doctor who quickly arranged for him to have an angiogram, which in turn led to a quadruple bypass operation.

Baldev started the Institute’s cardiac program in May after a five-week recovery period. He walked, biked, worked with weights; in fact, he says, did everything – and also got some instructions on what he should be eating.

“For the first few days exercising was hard,” he says. “Then slowly, slowly it was okay.”  Baldev is still working out at the Institute, doing exercises for 1¼ hours, five days a week. How does he feel? Better, he says, though he does feel a bit tired. His three kids – one a dietician in Toronto – are delighted he’s taken up this healthful new lifestyle.

The spirited Rhea Vaags-Olafson, phy-ed-trained chronic disease co-ordinator, has a dual role at the Wellness Institute, co-ordinating its cardiac program and also working at ground level with the program participants. In an interview she explains how the program staff works to take the measure of individuals coming into the program – with stress tests, blood tests and psychological screening – and to tailor their exercises to each person’s capacities. All participants are retested as they leave the program, to see what changes and improvements have occurred.

Rhea describes the program as medically based – with a medical advisor overseeing the medical component of the program, and nurses and physiotherapists on staff. But rather than being dependent on doctors, she says, the Institute tries to train program members in how to themselves manage their condition.

At the same time, Rhea says, the Institute is offering its people a safe environment, with trained staff on hand ready to assist individuals who are unwell, or if requir3ed get them safely to hospital.

The cardiac program is just one component of the health offerings of the Wellness Institute, which describes itself as a state-of-the-art medical fitness facility dedicated to improving the health of the community through health promotion, disease prevention and rehabilitation services. It hopes to inspire members of the community to adopt health lifestyles and learn to be well.

The Institute and Reh-Fit in south Winnipeg offer the same cardiac program, both of them funded by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, and measure participants’ medical condition in the same way, though the Institute is alone in being attached to a hospital.
For information about the Wellness Institute, call 632-3900 in Winnipeg, or visit

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