Fitness alone wasn’t enough to prevent Warrawatja Bell’s heart attack
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Fitness alone wasn’t enough to prevent Warrawatja Bell’s heart attack

Just 48 years old and in training for a boxing match, Warrawatja Bell was focused on his fitness and had no idea he was at risk of heart disease

Warrawatja Bell is a Wiradjuri/Wonnarua man. He is a trained actor and hip-hop artist who lives in Sydney and loves riding his motorbike and watching sport and movies. 

Warrawatja's heart story

Drugs and alcohol played a big part in my world, from when I was about 10. Using drugs and drinking kept disrupting my life. I found myself on the wrong side of the law, and I was losing relationships that were important to me. I remember thinking, ‘There has to be another life than this’.

When I was 30, I made a big change and gave up the destructive habits that kept disrupting my life. I’d done a Certificate III in Theatre Performance and I loved it so much: I have done some acting and theatre workshops, and I see myself as a creative person.

Being physically fit, too, has always been a big part of my story. I trained, and trained hard. I was bullied at school and from about 15 I made a commitment to building myself up. My attitude at that time was that while I was training, I could eat whatever I wanted. Ice cream. Junk food. I was burning it all up, so what did it matter? I knew for some time that I had high cholesterol, but I didn’t really heed the warnings I was given and thought because I was fit, I’d be fine.

In 2018, I was working towards a boxing tournament, doing intervals of skipping and running. As I was putting my shoes on, ready to hit the road on a training run, I felt a strange tingling down the left side of my body. It was a cold day, but I suddenly felt hot and light-headed.  It was alarming so, worried, I called 000. 

The ambulance arrived quickly, and the officers told me I needed to go to hospital immediately. I said, ‘Look, I can’t now. I’m just going out for a road run.’ I don’t know if I was in denial – I suppose I was. You see a heart attack in the movies, where people clutch their chests and drop dead … it wasn’t like that. It felt surreal and very strange.

The ambulance attendant insisted I was going with them, and I argued. They got pretty heated with me, but it was so alarming. When I arrived at the hospital and the theatre was all set up to insert a stent, that’s when it really hits home. I had one stent initially, and a second about four days later.

I had some painful complications from the stent procedures, but the strangest thing happened when I woke after having the first stent. I sat up and felt: ‘I have got a voice! I have got something to say!’ It was such a strong, unexpected force. Since then, I have started writing and recording hip hop music, something I had never done before.

After my heart attack, I did cardiac rehab and it’s been really helpful in building my confidence up to train hard again. You can feel so tentative after a heart attack. You don’t know who to trust. In fact, I also have the chance to do additional rehab for maintenance, through Aboriginal Medical Services.

Rehab gave me the information to make some really big changes to my life. I had grown up eating a lot of butter, with mum cooking things in lard. We weren’t really educated about it and later, as an adult, I thought that working out meant I didn’t have to worry too much about my diet.

Once, I might have chosen a chocolate bar over a banana: I eat a lot more fruit and vegetables and now, if I do eat ice cream, I check the label and choose something low fat. For example, I have swapped standard cheese for low fat cottage cheese. I do break out from time to time, but I’m trying.

The heart attack was really significant, and I feel so glad to be alive. I’m only 49, and even now I can still fret that I might not get the chance to do everything I still want to do. I didn’t fully realise how dangerous a heart attack was.

I have learned that it is important to be able to ask for help. A lot of our people don’t feel they can ask for help when they need it.

A heart attack isn’t a death sentence. If you do the right things to recover well, if you are able to build a good relationship with your doctor, a heart attack is definitely not a death sentence.

Warrawatja's one piece of advice

Take cholesterol tests seriously. I probably had high cholesterol for some time but thought because I was fit that they didn’t really matter. But they’re a matter of life and death.

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