When the racing heartbeat that had plagued teenager Jack Shields for weeks suddenly turned to stabbing agony, he knew he had just seconds to raise the alarm.

Stumbling into his mother’s bedroom in the early hours of the morning, the 21 year-old managed to slap on the light switch before his legs gave way and he lost consciousness.

A mere ten days later, Jack was wheeled out of the Freeman Hospital having undergone emergency open heart surgery and so began a rehabilitation programme that would test his physical and mental health to the limit.

That comprehensive recovery programme was devised and delivered by Sunderland City Hospital’s cardiac rehab physiotherapists and lifestyle officers within the Healthy Exercise and Lifestyle Programme (HELP), working with Sunderland’s All Together Better Community Integrated Teams, providing joined-up health and social care to people in Sunderland with a number of ongoing health conditions.

“I had been having this racing heartbeat for weeks, but hadn’t worried too much about it,” said Jack, now 23, of Newbottle, Houghton-le-Spring. “I told my mam and she’d said to keep monitoring it, but ultimately, when it started in the night, I’d get up and watch TV or read a book until it passed, and it always did until that night in 2015.

“I woke up and it was there, but as I got out of bed there was a huge stabbing pain in my chest like nothing I’d experienced in my life – it was unbearable. I realised something was wrong, but by the time I’d managed to get to my mam’s room, my legs were giving way and I just collapsed.”

Jack was rushed to Sunderland Royal, and from there to the Freeman Hospital where he underwent a 12-hour surgery on a burst aorta, which had flooded his heart with blood, almost killing him.

He said: “The operation saved my life and I discovered that I had an abnormal aorta, which was a surprise, as I was a fit and healthy lad who was working out, going to football and enjoying life.

“Suddenly I was having heart surgery and looking at a lengthy rehab programme…but it got worse. I had only been released for two or three days when I developed pneumonia and became incredibly ill. I had fluid on the lungs and severe sickness. I was in hospital for another five or six weeks, during which time they also discovered I needed a stent putting into one of my arteries.”

Following the knockback, it wasn’t just Jack’s physical health that suffered, but his mental health was placed under great strain too.

“I was taking anti-depressants and and could barely walk without help, and just kept thinking “why me? How could this happen to a young, fit lad who hasn’t drunk excessively or ever taken drugs, it’s just not right!” – it was horrendous.

“When I started the cardiac rehab with HELP at the Aquatic Centre, I had to have help getting out of the car and even up the steps of the building. It was a real challenge for me.”

However, after a few sessions, Jack started to see an improvement in his overall health and wellbeing, and even another major operation to his heart – after doctors located another anomaly with his aorta on a routine scan – could not knock him off the road to recovery.

“I thought I was back to square one, but it was another ten days in hospital and I was out and determined to continue with my rehab.” Jack returned to the rehab class, making steady progress to on his road to recovery.

Having graduated from the aquatic cardiac rehab sessions, Jack now able to continue his rehabilitation at Houghton Wellness Centre, attending Healthy Exercise and Lifestyle Programme for twice weekly exercise sessions for the next 12 weeks. Jack’s strength and stamina returned and soon his mental health improved as he regularly beat personal targets set by himself and HELP senior lifestyle officers Simon Williamson.

“I worked hard and was determined to push myself,” added Jack. “I still found myself thinking about why this had happened to me, but I had a new focus and beating my own targets helped massively.

“I progressed through the cardiac rehab class and into the gym where the HELP team assisted me in creating challenging, but safe programmes that helped build my progress and I started to genuinely feel like myself again.

“I still take a few tablets, but I’m at the stage where I can do everything I did before I fell ill and feel like I’m physically about 90%, which will do for me given where I was a few years ago.

“I can’t say enough good things about the team. Without them I don’t know where’d I’d be now.”

HELP is based in Grindon Lane Primary Care Centre, Sunderland, and works out of the Everyone Active gyms in Houghton, Washington, Bunnyhill, Silksworth Community Pool and the Aquatic Centre.  It also delivers rehabilitation sessions in church halls and community centres.

Senior Lifestyle Officer, Simon Williamson, who has been with the team for 13 years, said: “Working with people like Jack is an inspiration. Watching him overcome the many obstacles that were placed in his way was incredible and he deserves to be where he is today.”

Senior Lifestyle Officer, Laura Williamson, who has worked within the team for 10 years, said: “HELP is made up of exercise specialists working with people of all ages who have suffered quite specific conditions, such as bronchiectasis, people awaiting transplant; emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis, to encourage self care; promote self efficacy and help patients maintain exercise as part of their lifestyle to manage their condition and reduce hospital admissions.”

HELP staff are all level 4 qualified in COPD and cardiac rehab. They assess patients and tailor programmes to suit individual needs. All are exercise specialists with backgrounds varying in sports science; sports and exercise development and health study degrees.

Receiving referrals from health professionals ranging from respiratory nurses, specialist consultants, GPs, community matrons and physiotherapists, HELP categorises patients depending on severity of condition before embarking on pulmonary rehabilitation classes, an eight to ten-week programme of exercise delivered across Sunderland and Washington.

HELP is based in Grindon Lane Primary Care Centre, Sunderland, and works out of the Everyone Active gyms in Houghton, Washington, Bunnyhill, Silksworth Community Pool and the Aquatic Centre.  It also delivers rehabilitation sessions in church halls and community centres.

For further information, please contact your GP and ask to be referred to the Breathe Well, Live Well service.