Personal trainer and fitness fanatic Sally Feinerman thought she’d be the last person in the world to develop a serious heart condition. Furthermore, she was shocked when she was told she needed a pacemaker in her forties.
Despite the news, it hasn’t stopped 46-year-old Sally from pursuing her goals. She still runs marathons – with a pacemaker – and is helping other women lead healthy and active lives.
“I want to get a positive message out there for everyone to take care of your health. I have more empathy for people with medical conditions since this has happened to me. I don’t have many questions – I want to provide answers.”
Sally, who lives in Roxburgh, Central Otago, owns her own online personal training business, Fitness Fix (fitnessfix.co.nz). It provides women who live mostly in rural areas with fitness and lifestyle advice.
Once a tour guide on the Milford Track, Sally had always eaten well and loved fitness, so it came as a shock when, having attempted the Auckland half marathon in 2011, she was told she had a heart condition.
“The day before the event I wasn’t feeling too well but I still raced.It was a struggle. By the time I got to the other side of the Auckland Harbour Bridge, I felt terrible and eventually had to pull out.”
She started the race with her husband of 14 years, Carl (60), and was hoping to qualify for the New York Marathon – a goal that has been on Sally’s bucket list for many years. She was devastated when she had to quit and saw a doctor after the race for a check-up.
“They suspected that it was my heart and monitored me for 24 hours. They discovered that my heart would pause – as long as six seconds in some instances. It was described as a heart block; there was something wrong with the wiring. It’s like I had a faulty spark plug. That explained why I was feeling so terrible.”
After the diagnosis, Sally had surgery to install a pacemaker – a device to regulate her heart to beat at a normal rate.
As she was recovering from the operation, she had an overwhelming urge to use the experience to help others.
“I decided that having a pacemaker doesn’t need to change my life. I saw this as an opportunity to continue normal daily activities and challenge others with similar conditions to stop asking ‘why me’ and instead look for ways to turn their situations into a positive.“
As soon as she recovered, Sally started a walking group and continued training, still hoping to race in New York. She was eventually accepted to run in the famous marathon. But the year she travelled to New York, in 2012, the race was cancelled because of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. “I was gutted,” she says. “But all was not lost. There was an unofficial marathon called Run Anyway in Central Park and so we ran that instead.”
It wasn’t until October 2013 when Sally was able to race in a major marathon – in Minneapolis in the US. It was a special event as she was one of 25 people around the world chosen to run during an all-expenses-paid trip that included Carl.
Each runner had defied the odds by having a medical device to treat conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
“To hang out and run alongside other people who had medical devices was the icing on the cake. We never acted like there was anything wrong with us.”
Sally is hoping to spread a message to both men and women about taking good care of their health – especially when heart disease is New Zealand’s biggest killer.
“It’s something that’s preventable. People need to look after themselves and take better care of their lifestyles.”
She says she is living proof that life doesn’t have to end if you’re diagnosed with a serious heart condition.
“The effects on you when something bad happens can be life-changing but sometimes giving up is not the answer.
“You have to keep moving forward and work around the challenges life’s given you.“