SINGAPORE: For nearly two years, since he joined his running club, Mr Jimmy Hoon had kept a secret from his running mates, something that only a few of the trainers knew.
He had done eight half-marathons with them and completed his first full marathon last month. But it was only recently, as CNA Insider produced this story, that the 54-year-old revealed to them his condition.
After their warm-ups in Punggol Park before their usual Sunday run, Mr Hoon shared this: In 2013, he had open-heart surgery because of blocked arteries. He was a bypass patient.
“I was very down for one and a half years. I didn’t feel like doing anything. So running actually built my confidence,” he told the group, which responded with gasps of "ooh", and then applause in a show of support for the man whom one running kaki called a “good running partner” and a “hero”.
Without his operation – a quadruple bypass, no less – Mr Hoon would not have the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon under his belt now. And he felt good about telling his running buddies that.
There was a lot more he could have told them, had they not had their 15km run to do - like how he used to smoke two packs of cigarettes and drink 15 cups of coffee a day. Or how work stress used to induce panic attacks.
The journey out of his unhealthy lifestyle to reach the best shape of his life has been a long one. And literally running that road to recovery has been his redemption.
SMOKING, DRINKING AND PANIC ATTACKS
Mr Hoon picked up smoking at the age of 17, starting off as a casual smoker. But he stopped during National Service because he needed stamina then.
When he moved to China for work, however, smoking became a heavy habit because “everybody smoked” there and cigarettes were “so cheap”.
Mr Hoon went to Shanghai in 1992 as a restaurant manager of a hotel. Two years later, he moved to Beijing as Hard Rock Cafe’s operations manager when it opened in the capital. That was when the hard living began.
“In my job, I drank a lot and needed to entertain friends. Once they opened a bottle, I needed to drink a bit,” he recalled. Among those he had to entertain sometimes were Chinese officials.
“It was a totally different ball game between Singapore and China. In China, you needed to have some friends to help you along,” he said. “(Entertaining) made it easier and smooth, and you didn’t need to go through a lot of different channels. But you still had to apply for the permits.”
Another thing he had to do was to check out what other clubs were doing. “Clubbing was one of the key … things in our kind of line.”
Mr Hoon had more responsibility than ever before, from marketing to human resources to merchandising. But he enjoyed his work, especially after his wife-to-be joined him in Beijing in 1995, a year before they got married.
And he was not concerned about his health then, thinking that he was “still young, still enjoying (his) life”.
The stress of work, however, made him smoke more. It also began to trigger panic attacks - the first of which came, in fact, when he had to leave work behind: Just before his honeymoon to Mauritius.
His wife Iris Ho, 52, recalled: “We had no clue it was a panic attack. He was feeling it so much that he wanted to get off the plane. It was just fear.”
Nothing much changed after the couple started a family in 1997. Mr Hoon stopped smoking at home when the children were around, but his heavy workload still meant long days and late nights, from 10am to 3am.
Eventually, he cut down on his drinking and caffeine, after he was diagnosed with high cholesterol, gout and panic disorder. But he did not stop smoking. He went through two packs a day for at least 10 years.
A HEART-FELT BLOW
In 2012, Mr Hoon returned to Singapore after the closure of Hard Rock Cafe Beijing, not knowing what he would do next.
Tying up the loose ends was also a stressful and “emotional” period, one he had to handle alone because Mdm Ho had come back more than two years earlier with their son and daughter so that the latter could prepare for her PSLE.
A few months after returning, Mr Hoon went for a routine check-up, two years after his last one. In the intervening period, he had been feeling a slight chest discomfort on and off after going to the gym.
“It wasn’t pain. It was like a contraction kind of feeling,” he described. “It wasn’t a constant thing … so I just left it as it was.”
What it was, however, was his heart not getting enough oxygen because he had four blockages of between 50 and 90 per cent in his arteries.
At first, he was told angioplasty and stenting would unclog his blood vessels. But when it turned out that a bypass was needed, taking veins from his leg and arm to attach to his heart, the news hit him hard.
He had never thought he his unhealthy lifestyle would take such a toll. “(If) it comes, it comes lah – don’t care,” he said of his previous way of thinking.
But when it comes, you care. When it hits you, you care … you learn. That’s my experience – it hit me badly.
Up until the night before his operation at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, he had not come to terms yet with his situation.
“He was still asking Dr Wong (his surgeon) why. Why did it happen? And Dr Wong didn’t say anything because he had gone through the whys and the how … All the years of drinking, heavy smoking, not enough sleep, bad diet,” said Mdm Ho.
In April 2013, three months after his check-up, Mr Hoon went under the knife for five hours.
UNBEARABLE PAIN, DEPRESSION
About 99 per cent of bypass operations are successful, heart and lung surgeon Wong Poo Sing told CNA Insider. And so it was for his patient.
“We were able to improve the blood flow to (his) heart muscle, so that his heart function still remains good,” said Dr Wong.
The first thing after his operation that Mr Hoon remembers, however, was pain, which was “so bad and unbearable” that he needed a lot of painkillers.
During the next two months after his one-week stay in hospital, he felt “very frustrated” and “lousy the whole day”.
“I couldn’t lift my hands high up. I couldn’t put my hands behind. I couldn’t bend down. All (my) movements were restricted,” recounted Mr Hoon, whose wife had to help him shower and change clothes.
For three months, he confined himself to home before he finally ventured out for a walk. He had promised himself that he would stay healthy, and quitting smoking was something he had already done, a month before his surgery.
But other than walks and the recuperation exercises at home that his doctor had advised, Mr Hoon switched off and slid into negativity - unable to accept his new circumstances.
“Before, I could do a lot of things. Suddenly, it was like a 50 per cent cut. I didn’t have the strength,” he said, wincing slightly at the memory. “I was very short-tempered. I kept everything to myself.”
One and a half years went by before he managed to rouse himself, before depression could take hold. And the turnaround began by changing up his walks.
“I had a plan: Three minutes of walking, one minute of running. But that run was a very slow run,” he said.
Slow as it was, he was comforted that he could run when he had imagined that it was beyond him. Gradually, he improved to two minutes of walking and two minutes of running, until he could run for four minutes.
He then worked his way up to 2km runs. His wife - a supportive figure throughout his darkest days who made healthy meals for him - then threw him a challenge that would change his life completely.
THE FIRST 10KM
Three months after her husband started running, Mdm Ho signed him up for the 10.5km Green Corridor Run 2015. He had one month to prepare.
“It was a meaningful run, so I thought why not. I took up the challenge,” said Mr Hoon, adding that he could not back out also because his wife, who had no training and disliked running, had signed up too.
So he roped in his brother, joined a gym and began to run longer distances. During that time, however, there was one thing he felt he needed to do while running, which was to keep his hands to his chest.
Maybe it was psychological – I felt that my heart was jumping up and down … When I held (my hands up to) my chest, I felt comfort.
And that was how he did the run, from the starting point at Tanjong Pagar Rail Station all the way to the old Bukit Timah Rail Station, completing the race in one hour and 10 minutes.
“Because of my condition, when I crossed the finish line, I felt great,” he said. “I could actually do it. Why did I punish myself for one and a half years and not get up and exercise?”
The run came almost two years after his surgery and is still the one he “enjoyed the most”. And it got him hooked.
His second run was on Coney Island, and two months after that, he signed up for the Yellow Ribbon Prison Run.
After three 10km runs, he then joined the Safra Punggol running club, having noticed their runners so often while running near his home.
With the training sessions they had, and the greater discipline that came from running in a group, he became more confident about running longer distances. And that was why he wanted to test himself by running half-marathons.
'LISTEN TO YOUR BODY'
The biggest test, however, came when Mr Hoon decided to go for his first full marathon. “Nobody convinced me, but I checked around (with) my club’s runners. Most of them signed up, so I just signed up,” he said.
People who didn’t understand said I was a little bit crazy … But why with my condition couldn’t I run? This was what I told myself.
Before he took the plunge, however, he googled for “bypass patients running a marathon” and found not only “a lot” who did but also those who have done triathlons.
“And they’re as old as or much older than me … 70 years old and they’re still running a marathon,” he said, though he noted they were “all in the United States, not in Asia”.
“The advice is still the same: Listen to your body.”
His cardiologist, who knew about his running experience, had told him to “take it easy”. But when it came to running a full marathon, Mr Hoon kept his cards close to his chest and only went for a normal check-up.
He did not think that any doctor would endorse his fitness for a marathon in case something were to happen.
WATCH: How he did it (8:11)
He reasoned to himself: “A cardiac arrest can happen not only to bypass patients (but also) to a normal guy … Anything can happen (during a marathon).”
In his case, Mr Hoon did not care about his timing and so was not going to push himself, focusing instead on following the club’s structured 16-week programme of training and recovery for the marathon.
And when the time came, he found that his first marathon was like a “sightseeing” tour.
When it’s quiet, the road is closed, the sky is dark, businesses aren’t (open) yet … (the scenery) is actually beautiful. I found those moments very peaceful. I really enjoyed it.
When fatigue set in at the 35km mark, he slowed down, walking every 400 metres and then running 600 metres until the finish line, five hours and five minutes after he had set off.
It was a hugely emotional moment. “Finally, I did it. That’s the feeling. I achieved something great. I had never imagined that I’d complete a full marathon."
When Mr Hoon’s surgeon heard of his feat, he was “amazed” and also concerned.
“The type of exercise we expect (bypass patients) to do is brisk walking and maybe simple jogging,” said Dr Wong.
Jimmy is the only person I’ve known probably in the last 20 years who’s done a marathon after a heart operation.
He cautioned that heart patients who want to go and do a marathon should not do it on their own: "They must get approval from a cardiologist."
And undergoing a bypass doesn't mean the future will be problem-free, Dr Wong said. "Heart disease is for life."
THE FUTURE, AND FAMILY
Which is why these days, besides regular exercise, the Hoons make sure to eat well, cooking up healthy meals in their kitchen.
Running, Mr Hoon reckons, has given him another 10 years' lease on life, and the opportunity to see his two children grow up and live their own lives. The benefit isn't just physical - “I feel I have more focus in many ways … I feel I’m calmer these days,” he said.
Since he picked himself up, he has returned to the food and beverage industry as a partner and operations manager at ice cream chain 320 Below (which, he highlighted, uses natural fruits with no preservatives).
Framed on a wall in his home are the bib numbers and finisher medals for all his runs as well as the finisher jersey for his marathon – a reminder of the lifestyle change he has made.
His biggest regret in life is that he picked up smoking, but Mr Hoon is more concerned with looking forward positively these days – to his second 42.195km run, the Sundown Marathon in May, and possibly a third one overseas, like in cooler Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Mr Raymond Lim, 46, a trainer with the Safra Punggol running club, is already amazed at what Mr Hoon has done.
“Jimmy’s case is definitely very extraordinary,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of friends or relatives who have a heart condition. Nobody even talks about running.”
Mr Hoon’s daughter Clarisse, 18, is also proud of her father’s accomplishments.
“It isn’t easy to keep up this lifestyle while working as much as he does. He proves that at no matter what age, you can still take up new hobbies or improve yourself,” said the sports and wellness management polytechnic student.
“Through seeing his health improvements, I’m encouraged to pick up healthy habits too. I hope my dad will achieve all his personal fitness goals this year and continue to run with gusto,” she said.
For Mr Hoon, there is one other thing he hopes his story can do: Inspire patients like him to “get up and exercise” with, of course, their doctor’s advice.
“It’s not easy … but (they) need to do that, be it running, swimming … whatever they need to do within their own comfort,” he said. “Exercise builds confidence.”