A cardiac arrest at age forty-one inspired Paul Maher to create the blog HeartGeek.com, where others in recovery can interact. “Exercise After a Heart Attack–A Guide to Getting Started and Staying Motivated,” is Maher’s first publication.
In this interview with Stephanie Miller, Maher discusses how he went from cardiac arrest to running a triathlon.
Stephanie: Tell me about having a heart attack at age forty-one and getting to the point where you actually participated in a triathlon. Had you been that active in the past?
Paul: No. I pretty much dropped off physical activity in high school when I started smoking. That carried through for the next about twenty-five years. Towards, I guess, about five years before the heart attack, I did meet my wife. She is a much more physically active person. Then I started to try to quit smoking several times. I did start to get a little more active and try to go to the gym with her. I joined the gym for the first time in my life. It was all starts and stops and I never really quit smoking and never really got serious about it.
Stephanie: You don’t smoke anymore, do you?
Paul M: No, I do not. I’d be divorced if I did.
Paul: Yeah, then I had the heart attack and the cardiac arrest. It was a scary deal. That took some recovery time. During those first three months is really when I was sort of walking and that was very short walks in the beginning but several miles towards the end which was easy to do because I wasn’t working. But then I went back to work. I continued to walk and then I actually started running a few times a week, two to three miles at a time. I keep stopping and starting. I’d take a month or two off. Get bored and stuff like that. It wasn’t continuous. I tried as much as I could but never really … even after the heart attack, never really got dedicated to it, I don’t think.
Stephanie: Are you more dedicated to it now?
Paul: Yeah. I think it was five years after that, maybe two years ago. I hadn’t started smoking again but I was just not leading a very healthy lifestyle especially considering what I had been through. Wasn’t exercising regularly. I was drinking a lot. I was working a lot. I had a lot of stress, all that kind of stuff. I actually went into Afib and didn’t come out of it for a few days. I was in the hospital and they eventually had to shock me to stop the Afib. That really was kind of a reality check. It was then that I really got serious. I think I’ve exercised five or six days a week since then, every day.
Stephanie: Wow. You had a second chance.
Paul: Yeah. I mean, I have had a second chance at life, third chance at life. It takes, I guess, three times to really make me realize. That’s when I started really getting into it. I think that I joined, I was already a member of a gym but really, I got more into exercise at home like the … I don’t know if you ever heard it, the P90X programs. I started doing those and really liked those. I found different variations of them and I just find it easier to stay dedicated by doing it at home.
I still do go out for runs. I even started to bring my daughter with me. She’s ten. Every once in a while. I convince her to do it, a 5K on Thanksgiving Day with me. She’s dreading it but I’m going to make her.
Stephanie: That’s great.
Paul: Yeah, I figured if I’m doing all these exercises, why not just try it a little harder and do a triathlon. A couple of friends of mine were doing it. It’s not a full triathlon. These are sprint triathlons. It’s only a half-mile swim, fifteen-mile bike ride and then, what was it, then a 5K, like a three and a half mile run.
Stephanie: Still, very impressive that you signed up for it and did it… and finished it!
Paul: Yeah, I was a little worried about finishing.
Stephanie: Did you feel it? I mean, were you starting to get like, “Maybe I should stop?”
Paul: No, not at all. Once the swim was over. I mean, the swim was the hardest part. As far as the water was really rough. I just had a mindset that it’s only twenty minutes, the swim part. It’s the hardest. It’s the shortest and it’s the hardest. I think it was twenty-five minutes. Once that was over, I knew that biking and the running would be much less difficult. I felt good the whole time.
Stephanie: Good. Writing about it and sharing your experience with others, is that giving you satisfaction?
Paul: It has. Like I said, a lot of the working out I do is alone. It’s not very social. I knew it’s a huge thing to go through. I mean, it is life changing, obviously. It took me a while to realize that. It’s a lot to go through. I honestly try doing a lot of research on the internet. Tried different diets and all sorts of stuff. Nothing really stuck until I found the formula that kind of worked for me. I figured why not try to share that experience with other people because I imagine, especially if you’re younger. You still consider yourself a pretty capable person that should be able to do a lot of things. It’s different, I think, when you have this event in your 70’s.
I’m guessing there’s a lot of people, hopefully not a lot, but quite a few people in the same category with me. If you’re apprehensive about exercising after an event like this, I think … that’s why I wanted to write about it, just to show my experience. Show others what they can do.
Stephanie: Right. You have to do it and to do it safely. Do you have plans to write more and maybe turn a series of these guides into a book?
Paul: That would be great. Yeah, I’m going to continue the blog obviously and keep writing. I’ve got an outline. I know the chapters. It’s just a matter of writing them now. Yeah, I would definitely like to do that. I think, I’d also like to get more personal interaction with people that need advice on how to cope with events like this and how to get back in shape and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, I mean, a book would be great. Personal interaction with people would be great.
Stephanie: How would people reach out to you for that personal interaction?
Paul: Just through the website, through HeartGeek.com.
Stephanie: Are people reaching out to you through the blog now?
Paul: Actually, somebody did this week send me an email. They found the post on the triathlon and they’re frustrated because they had bypass and their doctor is being very, very conservative and he was asking what my doctor was like and how long it took me to do certain activities and things like that. Actually, I asked him if he would write a guest post for the blog. He said yes. Hopefully he will.
Stephanie: It’s great to have that kind of interaction with a community of, I want to say, like-minded, people who have been in your shoes and in the age group that you’re offering to help. That’s wonderful. It must make you happy that somebody actually reached out to you with specifics and you had a dialogue with one of them.
Paul: Yeah, he’s about the same age. A couple of years older than me but very close. Very, very similar experiences.
Stephanie: Terrific. You told me about your ten year old. How old is your son?
Paul: My son is seven.
Stephanie: Has your heart attack changed their lives?
Paul: Definitely. I think they eat a very healthy diet. They don’t know any different because when it happened, my daughter was three and my son wasn’t born. My wife was five months pregnant.
It’s been kind of, they’ve grown up just knowing a dad mostly that eats well, exercises a lot, his crazy races and does turkey trots. I work out at home so they see it every day. My son now, he’s only seven, but he’ll get down there and do… he wants to do ten pushups every morning before he goes to school.
I think it’s having a positive effect on them. They know what I went through. They don’t know the seriousness…just that I had a problem with my heart, had a surgery and now I’m good. That’s enough for them, for now, to know.
I think it’s been a positive experience. I don’t know that we would … I would be demonstrating the same kind of healthy lifestyle to them had I not gone through this.
Stephanie: Well it is definitely life altering. I can’t believe you had a second episode and it took that long to get through to you that something had to change.
Paul: I know, I’m stupid.
Stephanie: I don’t even know how you got the strength to work out to the point where you entered a triathlon.
Paul: Well, thanks.
Stephanie: You look great. You’ve got to feel one hundred percent better.
Paul: Definitely do.
Stephanie: Can people get your first publication, “Exercise After a Heart Attack–A Guide to Getting Started and Staying Motivated” online?
Paul: Yes, it’s on HeartGeek.com as an instant download.
Stephanie: Thank you for your time today, Paul. We’ll be looking for the results of the turkey trot on your blog to see if your ten year old daughter comes in ahead of you.