Overcoming heart problems at 90

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Ethel Smith
Turning 91-years-old this year, WA's Ethel Smith is still out walking four times a week.

Happy to share a few of her secrets about how to live a long life and keep your mind sharp, the Kojonup-born Aboriginal woman encourages everyone to focus on taking greater care of their body.

“I believe the main thing is no alcohol or drugs and keeping busy,” she said.

Her advice to younger generations is “get out a bit more often and enjoy life and be active.”

“With my walking frame, I’m still out and about and I feel better than ever now I have got my pacemaker, which was fitted three years ago,” she said.

Keen on remaining as independent as possible, Ethel still shops and cooks for herself and each morning gets up and makes her own bed.

“I like to cook - mainly soups and stews - so I can make sure I have lots of vegetables and fruit,” she said.

Being optimistic and focusing on happiness was also important, Ethel said, rather than worrying too much about your problems.

“Just do not let worry get the best of you,” she said.

In recent years, she has endured two heart operations, including bypass, surgery for stomach cancer and recovered from a broken hip.

To keep a close eye on her health, every week, along with her sons, she attends the Heart Health program based at Perth’s Derbarl Yerrigan Health Service Aboriginal Corporation. This was set up through collaboration with the Heart Foundation and Royal Perth Hospital.

Ethel said her heart problems had never made her feel unwell or dizzy, but a nagging pain in her chest had sent her to her GP for a check-up three years ago and led to the pacemaker being fitted.

A user of traditional bush medicine, she also believes it’s important to utilise the best Western medicine has to offer.

Starting off her life as a housekeeper at the age of 16, Ethel was married for 40 years to her agriculture and railway worker husband Kevin Smith who passed away in 1988. The pair attended university in the 1970s, studying Aboriginal culture.

She has 7 boys and three girls, too many grandchildren and great-grandchildren to count, she says, and 5 great-great-grandchildren.

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 staff, the culturally appropriate Heart Health program was established to help address this treatment gap.

The program offers exercise and educational sessions covering:

  • heart health
  • heart medications
  • healthy tucker and healthy weight
  • oral health
  • blood pressure
  • cholesterol control
  • quitting smoking
  • managing stress and emotions
  • benefits of physical activity
  • diabetes.

Is heart disease part of your story?

We want to hear from people who are living with heart disease and from families and friends who care for, or who have lost, loved ones with heart disease.