'Exercise helped me recover from breast cancer physically and emotionally'
A medically supervised training programme is changing the lives of patients recovering from a broad range of illnesses. Meet some of the happy attendees.
A host of community based chronic illness rehab programmes known as MedEx, led by Dr. Noel McCaffrey at Dublin City University, are enabling patients to rebuild their health through exercise and enjoy a whole new lease of life after illness. Colette Rooney from Malahide, who is in her sixties, recently took part in the MedEx Move On cancer rehabilitation programme.
"I was diagnosed with breast cancer in winter 2010. The effect was sudden and shocking as I had no expectation of such a diagnosis," she explains. "My treatment was a mastectomy, lymph node removal in a second operation, chemo, radio therapy and subsequent side effects were vertigo and tinnitus."
While Colette's treatment at Beaumont Hospital was excellent and her consultants, Professor Hill and Professor Grogan and the nursing staff were 'wonderful', throughout her time with them, Colette missed their support once her treatment was over.
"Suddenly I felt lost, vulnerable and all alone and in need of reassurance and a new focus," she says. "So I found that initially with a group called ARC, provided by people on a voluntary basis and then through the Move On Programme in DCU with Dr Noel McCaffrey and his staff.
"Move On was just wonderful. It provided a path towards physical fitness at my own pace, which was monitored and controlled by knowledgeable people, who were supportive, and encouraging within one's own capacity and capabilities. I looked forward to it each week."
Colette felt that the programme was a huge help to her mentally as well as physically.
"It enhanced my mental strength and determination to cope, adjust and re-engage," she explains. "It provided the environment and opportunity to bond with others who had similar experiences. A small group of us continue to meet about once a month for a walking day and a chat. We have visited the Botanical Gardens, Malahide castle and grounds, and Oldbridge House - the scene of the Battle of the Boyne. Nobody talks sick, that is all behind you and it is just about getting up and going and back to normal and building yourself back up to that point.
"Chemo strips you of all your confidence, you have been lying low for a year so your energy levels are at zilch and you have to start from that basis and build yourself up again. The message I would like to tell people is that you will get better," Colette says. "You expect this miracle that it is over now and that you should jump right back up to health again and you have to be patient."
The MedEx participants are referred by a GP or hospital consultant, who prescribes exercise as part of patient's rehabilitation following heart, lung, cancer, diabetic illness or surgery.
As a part of this treatment revolution, this 'prescription' of exercise is tailor-made for each candidate and delivered at DCU Sports Centre, in conjunction with academics at the university's School of Health and Human Performance.
Gerry Scully (54) from Glasnevin, who suffered from severe lung disease and has recently had a lung transplant, has been dubbed the 'miracle man' by friends and family following the procedure. However, before this vital operation could be done, Gerry attended the MedEx Breath Smart programme to build up his strength and he has continued with the programme ever since.
"I had been gradually getting worse for years and I had been attending what they called a pulmonary functioning sort of gym class in the Mater and that stopped a few years ago, so I wasn't doing anything as such," Gerry explains. "But I was told about Dr. Noel McCaffrey up in DCU and what he was doing. I knew of Noel McCaffrey because he is sort of the same age as myself and I would have come up against him playing football for Dublin as a young fellow years ago and I thought 'this is the last thing he needs now is me coming into him' because I was in a bit of a state," Gerry laughs.
"I was on say 16 or 18 hours of oxygen every day, but later in the year and I was talking to another good friend of mine, Paul 'Pillar' Caffrey, and he was a former Dublin football manager and he knew I was thinking about going.
"He said 'look I'm up here in the gym and I'm looking at fellas that are worse than you with oxygen on their backs, why don't you come up?'"
Gerry felt self-conscious about the move, but decided one day to visit DCU despite himself. "I was self-conscious about carrying the oxygen, which I would have had to do to exercise and I didn't think I was well enough to do any exercise," he explains. "But eventually I said 'I'll go up and see what this is about.' So in I went and I went up to DCU and parked in the car park and by the time I got into the reception area I was beat, so they got a wheelchair for me and I went off up to be assessed for the class."
After a number of classes Gerry lost weight, and developed what he calls "a bit of core fitness and toughening up."
He says: "Apart from the benefit of the exercise it would benefit you in other ways you'd feel good about it, you'd feel like you have done something. Even for meeting people it is great, because you're restricted when you're immobile like that; you're at home and you don't come across an awful lot of people.
"I had my transplant this year and I have continued the programme so I'm now going three days a week and I'm doing about 10 times more than what I was doing. I am like a young man of 25 again," Gerry says. "They call me the 'miracle man' around the neighbourhood now because they just have great goodwill for me and it seems to be uplifting for them to see me now doing so well."
Des Nix (65) from Raheny attends the Heart Smart programme.
"I am a type one diabetic for the last 50 years and then I developed heart disease almost 20 years ago, so I have six stints at the moment from different procedures over the years," Des explains.
"I had all of this done in the Mater Hospital and the Mater has a programme for people who have had heart interventions and essentially it's a cardiac rehabilitation programme, but that goes on for about 10 weeks and then they turn you loose because they have other people to look after. So it was there I was told about the Heart Smart programme in DCU and I started going there Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Des continues: "It's essentially an aerobics programme. "So they encourage you to push yourself as much as you can without endangering yourself. I have breathing difficulties as well and I don't go for long walks, because I find it uncomfortable to walk, but this programme seems to affect me quite differently. Although I know I'm exercising more than if I just went for a walk, it doesn't seem to affect me negatively in the same way walking does."
Without the programme Des feels he would have a much poorer quality of life.
"I would be seized up at home, because I wouldn't take the exercise otherwise. I think it's vital to my existence. I know I would be vegetating otherwise, it's an absolute life line for me," he adds. "The instructors are wonderful. They are so good and concerned for us all. There is a huge social element to it too, you make lots of friends there and the cup of tea and biscuit afterwards is as important to a lot of people as the actual exercise programme."
The MedEx project is the only programme of its kind in Ireland and one of the largest in Europe.
The MedEx service started in the North Dublin area five years ago led by Dr. Noel McCaffrey and there are now plans to expand the programme nationwide, offering a wider range of classes for illnesses such as stroke, arthritis, neurodegenerative disease, mental wellness and chronic pain.
The inaugural MedEx Games will be held at DCU on Thursday September 4. They aim to be a celebration of people who struggled daily with chronic illness. Participants will take part in a selection of events including walks ranging from 50m to two kilometres and runs from 0.5 kilometres to 10 kilometres.
For more information see: www.dcu.ie
Health & Living