Off the transplant list

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After months of exercise and dedication, Niagara Health System (NHS) cardiac patient Garwin Cockhead has accomplished a remarkable feat — improving his heart health enough that he’s been taken off Ontario’s heart transplant list.

A severe heart attack in August 2012 and related cardiovascular complications left the 52-year-old Niagara Falls man with a failing heart that doctors initially said needed to be replaced.

He was placed on the cardiac transplant list at Toronto General Hospital in early 2013. He was given a pager so he could be notified immediately if a health compatible heart became available.

But Garwin didn’t sit idly waiting for the pager to buzz. He got busy trying to repair the damaged heart he already had. He was referred to the NHS’s Cardiovascular Health and Rehabilitation Program and committed himself to exercise and improving his cardiac health.

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This regional program offers a variety of cardiovascular rehabilitation and risk reduction services, such as supervised exercise programs, nutrition counseling, stress management, smoking cessation and health teaching in both group and individual forums.

Almost 800 new patients participated in the program last year, logging almost 14,000 exercise visits. The YMCA of Niagara is a partner in the program.

Garwin completed the 16-week program at the YMCA’s Niagara Falls location, focusing on cardiovascular exercises, such as walking, spinning on stationary bikes and using the treadmill, as well as some light weights to improve his strength. He continues to exercise at the Y at least five times per week, even though he completed the rehab program.

All of Garwin’s sweat and hard work have paid off. He recently received the good news that his cardiac health has improved to the point that he no longer needs a new heart.

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“The exercise rehab program was a life-saver,” says Garwin. “When I began I could barely walk from one side of the room to the next. Now I can do 25 minutes of cardio and some strength training in a session. The program is also a place to be with people who are experiencing the same challenges you are; it’s a great support.”

It’s rare for patients with failing hearts to get well enough that they no longer require a transplant. The Trillium Gift of Life Network reports that between four and nine cardiac patients have been removed from transplant lists in Ontario each of the past five years because of improved health. On average, there are typically up to 165 people on the transplant list each year.

Garwin is among the fortunate ones — he was recently able to return the pager he wore for nearly a year, anxiously waiting for a change of heart. Garwin’s medical team credits his involvement in the NHS cardiac rehab program in part for his remarkable progress.

“We see benefits with most of our patients, and everybody progresses differently,” said Steve Walker, NHS Exercise Specialist with the program. “Garwin has worked very hard, and we are really pleased with his progress.”