Cycling his way to good heart health

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Still fit and active on his bike at 65, damage to a heart valve from rheumatic fever cost WA’s Robert Edgill his first high-paying highly-physical job when still a teenager.

Working as a concreter, lifting heavy materials and shovelling sand and blue metal, he was earning good money building water tanks, shed floors and cow troughs on farms and in the bush on remote national parks.

Often suffering dizzy spells back then, the first doctor he saw initially dismissed it as ‘just drinking too much after work with the boys’. Yet Robert was not a heavy drinker.

 When an ECG finally revealed a serious heart problem, he was transferred to Perth to see a cardiac specialist at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital back in 1969. It was an eight-hour drive from his workplace near Esperance.

“The top Professor told me I had a dicky ticker and asked what my job was,” said Robert.

“When I told him I was a concreter, he said to me ‘You know when they say hard work will never kill you, well in your case it will’.

“I had to go back and tell the boss I had to quit and he was very upset because he regarded me as his hardest worker. Then I had to look for work as a shearer and as a plant operator.”

Robert is a Noongar man and part of the Stolen Generation. Born in Katanning, he was taken from his parents while still a baby and sent to Marribank Mission Farm School, in WA’s Great Southern, which was run by the Baptist Church.

He said on “the Missions” his rheumatic fever was not detected for some time and, rather than staff realising he was unwell, he was regularly punished for not keeping up with the other children.

“At the time, I was about 10-years-old and short of breath and tired all the time. On the Missions, they flogged me and threw cold water on me for not keeping up,” said Robert.

“It was so bad that I ended up in hospital and that’s where they finally diagnosed both rheumatic fever and tonsillitis.”

The Telethon Kids Institute says when a child gets a group, a streptococcal infection of the throat, their body’s immune system, in trying to fight that infection, produces antibodies. Sometimes these antibodies, in addition to killing the strep, can damage their heart. Acute rheumatic fever can occur following an untreated strep throat infection and cause irreparable damage to major cardiac valves, known as rheumatic heart disease.

This is considered a third-world disease yet Australia has some of the highest rates in the world. About 3-5 per cent of Aboriginal people living in remote and rural areas have the condition.

Robert has learnt to live with the limitations from his damaged heart and works hard to keep it as healthy as possible, regularly taking his medications and keeping his diabetes under control.

Every second day he rides 40km on his bike and then works out for 45 minutes lifting cable weights.

He began cycling 25 years ago when working for a grain handling company, where he discovered the lunchroom was located a long way from his post. 

Focusing on his diet, he has given up cordial and after bike riding, he only quenches his thirst with water.

“I also try to eat healthily and limit portion sizes,” said Robert. “When I’m hungry between meals, I’ll have an apple or orange or avocado or sardines on toast.

“People might see me as the ‘old man on the bike’, but I can keep up with those half my age, averaging 27 to 29km per hour and reaching speeds of over 65km per hour.” 

Weekly visits are also made to the Heart Health classes at Perth's Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service Aboriginal Corporation, where Robert’s sister Dr Paula Edgill works treating patients.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of morbidity in Aboriginal Australians, however, only around 5% of eligible Aboriginal people attend cardiac rehabilitation. Through much community consultation, and strong collaboration between the Heart Foundation,  Derbarl Yerrigan and Royal Perth Hospital, the culturally appropriate Heart Health program was established to help address this treatment gap.

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