Ashley Garner doesn’t break stride on his treadmill as a nurse checks his blood pressure at New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Heart Center.
From the outside, the 46-year-old looks like he could easily run a half-marathon, which he’s done three times in the last five years. But on August 14, Garner suffered a massive heart attack and went into cardiac arrest.
Less than three months later, Garner completed NHRMC’s Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation, a nine-week program focusing on exercise, stress management, nutrition and group support.
“This program requires commitment from the patient,” said Jeff Soukup, Manager of the Intensive Cardiac Rehab Program. “They are investing in the future for themselves and their families.”
Participants meet for four hours, twice a week. They are guided by a team including a medical director, program director, nurse case manager and experts in stress management, fitness and nutrition through the Ornish Reversal Program—a program proven to “undo” heart disease.
Having no family history of heart disease, Garner lived what he called a “pretty active life” and did not eat fast food. His blood pressure and cholesterol were on the “higher end of normal,” but he had no real warning that he was in danger of suffering a heart attack.
An unforgettable day
He can still remember that morning clearly. After finishing a 7 a.m. boot camp fitness class at the YMCA, Garner felt tightness in his chest on the drive home.
Once home, he got dressed and was ready to go to his family doctor when his wife began questioning whether he should drive himself.
“Boom, it was over,” Garner said. “I was right in the kitchen, had the keys in my hand.”
He collapsed to the floor, and his wife gave him rescue breaths and called 9-1-1. NHRMC EMS arrived at the scene and Garner said a defibrillator was used to shock him twice on his kitchen floor, once in the ambulance and at least twice more on the table after arriving at the hospital.
He later learned one of his arteries was 100 percent blocked.
Today, Garner still has burn marks from being shocked, and he hopes the marks never go away.
“If I could avoid that 2-hour window with the part about having a heart attack and dying, but then I could still be right here today, I would choose to do it,” he said. “What I’m afraid of is I wouldn’t have gotten here if I didn’t have that.”
Garner said because he is relatively young and in shape, his incident shocked his friends and family, but through the program, all aspects of his life are “better.”
His family shops differently and eats differently at home, he takes time to meditate with his children, and he no longer puts things off.
That includes running another half-marathon—the Wrightsville Beach half-marathon—in March.
Through the program, Garner lost 25 pounds and went from a 36-and-a-half waist to less than 32.
“I am by far the strongest I have ever been in my life,” he said. “My mind is clearer. My memory is better. I sleep better. Everything is better.”
“Results like Ashley’s aren’t atypical,” Soukup said. “Research has proven that the Ornish program helps improve chronic conditions, such as heart disease.”
However, he knows his heart attack has changed more than just his own life.
“My kids now have a history of heart disease that they are going to have to deal with their whole life,” he said. “They are really going to have pay attention to how they live and how they eat, and that’s something I think about all the time.”
But he’ll be passing on many of the good habits he learned through the program to his two young children because now he said he wakes up everyday thinking about how he can help others learn so they don’t have to through the same thing.
“I feel lucky to be alive, number one,” he said. “I feel lucky to be (in the program), but in a different way.”