Recovery tips: recovering from heart attack, stroke or surgery

Fatima Fokina

When you’re recovering from a heart attack, stroke, surgery or illness, getting back on your feet can take time. We share tips from an expert and someone who’s experienced it.

Recovering physically and mentally from illness or a health event can be more of a challenge than we expect.

Dr Gavin Francis, a GP who has written a book, ‘Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence’, says that we all need time to get our health and strength back after a period of ill health. “Some people do bounce straight back from an operation, heart attack or illness,” he says. “But in my experience, they are very much in the minority.”

Caron Curragh, 65, a Pilates teacher and former dancer from Milton Keynes, found that the effect of illness on her physical fitness was greater than she ever would have expected. After a stressful disagreement with a neighbour eight years ago, Caron felt sharp, stabbing pains in her chest, back and jaw, and felt clammy and breathless. Another neighbour dialled 999 and Caron was taken to hospital, where she was diagnosed with Takotsubo syndrome, a type of cardiomyopathy that causes the left pumping chamber of the heart to balloon and weaken. It can be triggered by stressful situations, and, although it is usually temporary, it can have lasting effects. In the weeks and months after being discharged from hospital, Caron struggled to do anything physical. She says: “I couldn’t even get out of bed without feeling dizzy and feeling I was going to faint. Physically and mentally, you feel bruised and shocked. I couldn’t believe I felt that bad.

Physically and mentally, you feel bruised and shocked

“I remember two weeks after coming home, I linked arms with my husband, Brian, and tried to walk to a pond at the end of our road. I was clinging on to him and I couldn’t even make it that far. It was frightening that this heart event had taken my strength, my physicality, my confidence away.”

Caron Curragh stretching

Pace yourself and get support

Dr Francis says Caron’s experience is not unusual: recovery can be more challenging than people expect. “The spectacular growth of medical treatments means we’ve shifted to an idea that all that is needed is the right prescription. As a GP I see a very different picture – people often need guidance through their convalescence. We need to recognise the recovery phase as an important part of getting better.”

Dr Francis says you will reap rewards from taking time out from work or other responsibilities, to focus more fully on your recovery. This may be difficult to do if you have to work, or if you look after others. If you can, ask family or friends for help with household tasks or your caring responsibilities while you are recovering.

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Getting a sick note from your doctor

If you’re not well enough to go to work, or if work is holding up your recovery, you can get a “fit note” (Statement of Fitness to Work) from your GP. Dr Francis says: “One of the most powerful prescriptions I can write is a fit note, which is permission to take the time you need to recover.” You can contact your GP to request one: they will tell you if you need a face-to-face appointment or a phone consultation to get one.

Gradually building strength

Finding that you can’t do all the things you used to do before is very common, and can feel frustrating. You may need to re-learn daily activities like bathing, cooking, or dressing. Dr Francis says it’s important to use your recovery time not just to rest, but to gradually increase your daily activities, with the aim of rebuilding your health and strength. “Recovery is an active, dynamic process. It isn’t just ‘rest, rest, rest’. It’s also gently pushing at the limits of what’s comfortable in terms of exercise and activity.”

Gently push at the limits of what’s comfortable

So try to do a little more each day, or each week, but don’t overdo it. Dr Francis says that the path to recovery will vary from person to person. “It’s better not to compare yourself to others, but rather to set your own goals that are valuable to you.”

Pacing, which means staying within your limits without getting exhausted, is important to avoid a cycle of “boom and bust”. Dr Francis explains: “The risk is that you feel slightly better, try to go back to normal, and quickly feel exhausted, which sets you further back.” Pacing is especially important if you feel breathless or tired – for example if you have heart failure, or post-viral fatigue.

Focusing on progress

In the weeks after coming home from hospital, Caron set herself the goal of walking to the end of the road, at first with her husband. Progress was slow, but after about four months, she made it on her own. “I went out alone for the first time and I saw the crocuses were coming out at the bottom of the road. And I thought, from now on, each spring when I see those crocuses, I will be able to tell how I have improved and my progress year on year.”

Improving further for Caron meant getting down on to her Pilates mat and trying an easy movement. “I was still getting a lot of chest pain, was breathless and tired. I was quite alarmed that I couldn’t do three of the simplest exercises, like lying on my back and sliding one leg out. But I decided to adapt my exercises and build up. If I couldn’t exercise a muscle group standing, I thought, OK, can I do it sitting in a chair? When I could do three basic exercises over several days, I added a fourth.”

Emotional recovery can take time, too. Dr Francis says this can mean accepting what has happened and “find ways of living in peace with it”.

Recognising improvements

Caron says she regained confidence and belief in herself with every small improvement. A big moment was when she found she could stand to iron five shirts in one session. “It was like that moment on a really cloudy day when you get that gap in the cloud – it’s the start, I am beginning to improve. I realised I had to stop my all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking and accept it was going to take time.”

Caron says that the experience has made her focus more on her health and fitness. “If the heart event hadn’t happened, I might have taken my health more for granted. Gradually I regained a good level of fitness, I took up running and I’m back teaching my Pilates classes. I think maybe I am fitter mentally and physically now than I might have been otherwise.”

7 recovery tips

  1. Set achievable goals. Aim to progress by doing little and often, every day.
  2. Accept that recovery may be slow.
  3. Sit down often, even when washing, dressing, and cooking. Make sure there are seats where you need them around your home.
  4. If bending and reaching are difficult, use aids, such as reaching aids or ‘grabbers’, which can help you pick up objects from the floor or from high shelves.
  5. If you have to move objects, try to avoid lifting (sliding is easier) but if you must lift, do it with knees bent and back straight. Pushing can be easier than pulling, but avoid this if you’ve recently had a pacemaker or heart surgery.
  6. Get fresh air, and enjoy the healing powers of nature.
  7. If you experience shortness of breath, take time to manage it.

Published 25 May 2022

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