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Matt Shields was not your usual suspect when he had a heart attack aged 40.

Reaching high performance levels within the Adventure Racing scene competing at several world series events like XPD and racing for a pro-am cycling team in Europe in his 20s, Matt didn’t see what was coming.

It was a normal winter’s day and Matt was planning his usual 15 km run to work. He had almost completed 6 months of training for the Rogaining World Championships in Alice Springs and was due to compete in a week’s time.

Matt had only just started his run when he felt an intense pain in his chest. He stopped in his tracks and realised he had to call an ambulance – he was having a heart attack.

I lost a friend about six months ago who had a heart attack while out paddling in Sydney Harbour. He was found on the beach. So through the pain, I tried to think clearly how I could help myself as I knew time was critical.”

While talking to the emergency services operator, who reassured him that an ambulance was on its way, Matt checked his surroundings, put on a brightly coloured jacket, connected his earpiece to his phone and sat in the gutter to wait. Meanwhile, people unaware of Matt’s plight continued walking and driving past.

“No one nearby came to my rescue. I was alone the whole time, so I focused on the ambulance arriving, which did take a bit of time.”

The paramedics immediately treated Matt in the ambulance while they rushed to the hospital where an emergency team was waiting to take him straight to the operating theatre. Matt had experienced a very serious type of heart attack where one of the heart’s major arteries had become blocked, known as an ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI). Arteries supply oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the heart and other organs. A stent was inserted to reopen the blockage in Matt’s artery, immediately reducing his pain levels. Eventually, he was discharged from hospital.

“Looking back, I was in really good shape physically, but I had struggled with feeling crappy over the past 6 months, so I did see several doctors for blood tests, ECGs and so on. Nothing was pinpointed, so I put it down to the training and getting old.”

Matt’s heart attack forced him to re-think his life. His clinicians were cautious, concerned about any resulting heart damage and a need for subsequent care. He was advised to take it easy.

I’d been an athlete. The person who I was, wasn’t going to be there anymore. I had looked after myself all my life with the best food, the best coaches and the best everything, and now I was buggered. It felt pretty crushing.”

Used to training, Matt began to retest his fitness but found he would continually get sick after pushing his body beyond its limits. After regular check-ups with his cardiologist, HRI’s Professor David Celermajer, six months after the event it was confirmed Matt’s health had stabilised. Matt began going on overnight hiking trips, slowly extending until he was hiking for six weeks at a time, to focus on regaining his strength.

While Matt seemed fit externally, the cause of his blockage was high cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance. Excess amounts can build up on the artery walls, forming plaques that narrow the arteries. Levels can be managed by diet, but family history can also play a role.

“I changed my diet completely, cutting out any red meats and high cholesterol foods that I used to eat.”

Matt also moved from the city to the South Coast to be closer to nature and help manage his stress levels. To align with his health scare and all he had learnt from it, he also changed careers to work in the medical field, giving him a great sense of meaning and satisfaction.

I have found a real purpose behind what I’m doing. It’s a very good place to be in.”

For anyone else finding themselves in a similar health situation, Matt reiterates the steps he took in managing his health – become disciplined with a new diet, stick to your medication, and attend all the tests and checks your healthcare team recommends so your health progress is tracked closely. Matt also recommends looking for a cardiologist who is a good fit for you and your outlook, so you can see eye-to-eye with the progression of your care.

“Cardiovascular disease affects so many people. It might not take you at 40, like it tried with me, but it might affect you at 60 or 70."

There’s a lot of living to do once you retire, so don’t give up. Keep looking after yourself.”

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