At 32 years old, member Al Santaniello sported a cavalier attitude about life. He enjoyed junk food and cigarettes, and never exercised. One weekend in 1985, Al and his wife, Cathy, shared a lovely get-away in Manhattan. On the trip home, he felt an alarming pain in his arm and tightness in his throat. Despite Cathy’s warnings, he continued driving while these distressing symptoms increased and fear mounted. Once home, they went directly to the hospital where Al was diagnosed with a heart attack and underwent his first angioplasty surgery. Two blocked arteries needed to be cleared.
We’ve all heard textbook cases similar to this. The scenarios may vary. One may fall victim to a heart event while shoveling snow or having a heated discussion. Some ill-timed news on a stressful day may trigger it. Or, one of many fast-food stops may set it off. Whatever the cause, the outcome is usually inevitable. It’s a call to action for life-altering practices.
Al made an attempt to improve his diet. However he admits he wasn’t serious about his health until his third angioplasty in 1991. At 5’9” and 285 pounds, Al joined a local gym after recovering from surgery. He quit his cigarette habit and began eating healthier foods. But, was it too late for Al’s heart?
“My heart continued to decline,” Al informs. By 2001, he had a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted. Despite his attempts at a better lifestyle, Al’s journey with his temperamental heart continued. When the Center opened, Al immediately quit his local gym and became a founding member. “I was so excited about the possibilities for me here. I was impressed on Opening Day, but I had no idea yet how valuable the Center would be to me over time,” he shares.
Eager to start on his path to a healthier lifestyle and, in turn, a happier heart, Al would arrive at the Center at 5:00 a.m., four days a week. “Often, I’d get there so early that I’d wait in my car for staff to arrive and unlock the doors,” says Al. He made friends with the other early birds at the Center. “I actually looked forward to my workout time,” he adds in a surprised tone. Down to 225 pounds, Al felt great. Unfortunately, his stubborn heart had another surprise for him only a couple years later.
In 2008, Al began noticing shortness of breath during his workouts. The frequency increased and began to occur while performing routine activities. “I would be taking a stroll through the mall or gardening at home, when suddenly my breath would come short.” Al was then diagnosed with congestive heart failure. A newly discovered blood clot in his heart changed his course of treatment. Al became pacemaker dependant; his heart no longer beat independently. Early in 2009, he underwent the stressful task of being evaluated for a heart transplant.
While having countless tests and procedures performed, Al’s activities were medically restricted. His exercise routine was forced to a halt. Life was put on hold for this nine-month duration. However, the outcome was positive. Al’s heart health had not deteriorated enough to warrant a transplant. His cardiologist adjusted his medication and ordered him back to the Center, exercise being essential in avoiding a future need for transplant.
Although Al isn’t the early bird he used to be, he still exercises at the Center four days a week. He keeps ongoing appointments with the Center’s nurse. This is another level of reassurance for Al during his day-to-day living, a check-point between his evaluations with the cardiologist every three months. He also takes advantage of the personal training re- evaluations included with membership. “It was scary to exercise after nine months of restriction. I didn’t know how far to push myself. However, a personal trainer at the Center, who has experience in cardiac care, was there to guide me. He helped me work within my body’s limits.”
“Without a commitment to exercise, my cardiologist informed me that I would not have survived the past 14 years. My heart would have permanently failed long ago,” he says gravely. At the moment, Al reports that everything is going well. He notices improvement in his strength and flexibility. “I plan to exercise as long as I can. I realize things can change any minute.”
He plans to enroll in the Center’s free nutrition classes. “Through all this, I learned a lot about healthy eating; however, I often fall off the wagon. I wish I’d taken advantage of these classes a million years ago,” he says jovially. Al is happy to be part of the Center “team” as he works to improve his health. “I feel very fortunate,” he adds emphatically, “and in more ways than one.”