Tackling coal’s dark legacy

Barry Cook (far left) and members of the cardiac support exercise group, which exercises at the Crowtree.
Barry Cook (far left) and members of the cardiac support exercise group, which exercises at the Crowtree.
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THREE days a week, Sunderland’s Crowtree Leisure Centre hosts a group that is playing a major part in tackling the North East’s legacy of poor health.

 Coalfield areas nationwide are plagued by ill health. But new research from Durham University highlighted how some have been more successful than others in tackling the problems, and pointed to vital roles played by organisations such as Sunderland Cardiac Support.

 One of its trustees, Terry Cook, believes the group’s success is down to the fact it is run by people all too familiar with what recovering cardiac patients go through.

 “We have all had some sort of heart trauma,” he said.

 “It was set up in 1993 by a group of people who had all been through the rehabilitation system at the hospital after having heart problems.

 “They thought they would like to keep in touch with each other, and to help other people who had been through rehabilitation.”

 The city group’s work acts as a continuation of cardiac patients’ recovery programme.

 “As part of the rehabilitation treatment, you do simple exercises two mornings a week for six weeks,” said Terry.

 “One of the main things we offer is exercise, which we provide three mornings a week at Crowtree – Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.”

 The group, a registered charity, is entirely run and funded by volunteers, but the exercise sessions are led by professionals and designed to complement and expand on the rehabilitation process with which patients are already familiar.

 “The hospital requires the trainers to be qualified to the same standard as those providing its rehabilitation programme,” said Terry, 63.

 “Our trainers must follow the same procedures as the hospital staff for cardiac rehabilitation, so they have to be competent to look after cardiac patients.”

 Professor Sarah Curtis, co-author of the Durham University report into coalfield area health issues, said: “A lot can be learnt from the success stories and regeneration schemes that have worked well.

 “It will be helpful to share knowledge about the conditions fostering that success.”

 The Government has launched a £30million fund to provide assistance over two years via the Coalfields Regeneration Trust (CRT), which aims to help the hardest-hit coalfield areas become self-sustaining and overcome the health problems they face.

 The CRT has backed Sunderland Cardiac Support with a £3,470 donation through its Small Grants Programme, which Terry said came in extremely useful.

 “We don’t get any financial help from the council or the hospital, so everything we do is organised within the group, and we are constantly raising money.

 “The Coalfields Regeneration Trust did give us a grant last year to help to pay the trainers, hire the hall and renew the exercise equipment.

 “All the equipment we use is our own – we just hire the hall from Crowtree – so it does get a lot of use and has to be renewed on a regular basis.”

 Medical research backs up the university report’s conclusions on the importance of tackling health problems in the community, and not just in the hospital ward or GP surgery.

 “The British Heart Foundation did a study, which found people who join some sort of support group to do their exercises are 30 to 40 per cent less likely to suffer a recurrence,” said Terry.

 “So we know that we are providing a valuable service to the people of Sunderland.”

 But there is more to the group’s work than encouraging people to carry on with their potentially life-saving exercise programme.

 The social support provided for both patients and their families is also important.

 “Apart from exercise, we are a support group and we support our members in lots of different ways,” said Terry.

 “We hold meetings with guest speakers, play bingo, things like that, and we do monthly walks with accredited walk leaders.

 “I think we are one of the biggest cardiac support groups in the country. We have got 230 members, but they don’t all do exercises.”

 Some members have been part of the group for years, while other stay for weeks.

 “Some people come along for a few months, then they feel better, they go back to work, so they leave us, but we have a core support of people who have been with us from the start,” said Terry.