After a pre-gig heart attack, New Jersey musician embraces exercise

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg, American Heart Association News

Trombonist and singer Tommy Meares had a heart attack at his home while he was getting ready for a gig. (Photo courtesy of John Posada)
Trombonist and singer Tommy Meares had a heart attack at his home while he was getting ready for a gig. (Photo courtesy of John Posada)

For nearly a decade, trombonist and singer Tommy Meares shared the stage with Jon Bon Jovi, playing in the Kings of Suburbia, the rock legend's 11-piece band for private shows. Now, Meares plays with a mix of local and national bands.

Two years ago, he had a gig at a local supper club. At home in West Long Branch, New Jersey, he went upstairs to get ready. On the landing, he clutched the railing, gasping for air. His chest tightened and he started to sweat. He called out to his wife: "Something's wrong!"

In the emergency room, Meares learned he was having a heart attack. His right coronary artery was 100% clogged. He had minor blockages in other arteries, too.

He needed a cardiac catheterization procedure to open his clogged arteries and restore blood flow. It was late Friday and Meares was stable, so doctors scheduled the procedure for Monday morning. He would spend the weekend in the hospital.

Sunday morning after breakfast, nine nurses ran into Meares' room with a cart stocked with emergency supplies.

"What's going on?" he said, sitting up.

"You just had another heart attack," replied one of the nurses.

Meares hadn't felt a thing. But monitors alerted the staff of what happened. The catheterization procedure could no longer wait; he needed his arteries unclogged right away.

Complications caused the procedure to take six hours. A major issue was that Meares' right coronary artery was shaped like a shepherd's crook. He needed two blood transfusions and had four stents implanted to hold his arteries open.

The procedure was a success, and Meares went home to recover two days later.

After the heart attacks, Meares thought about what caused them. He realized part of the problem was a diet heavy on red meat. He vowed to clean up his diet, cutting out red meat and cooking more salmon instead.

Two months later, his doctor cleared him to start cardiac rehabilitation. In the Monmouth Medical Center cardiac rehab department, Meares walked the treadmill and did the elliptical machine. Soon, he progressed to lifting weights and rowing.

"I fell in love with the process," Meares said. "I got hooked."

A month and a half after his heart attacks, Meares felt strong enough to play the trombone again. He took the stage, playing a show with Anthony Krizan of the Spin Doctors. Two days later, he played another gig with a band that shared the bill with Micky Dolenz from The Monkees, and the day after that he had a third gig.

Tommy Meares was back to playing gigs a month and a half after his heart attacks. (Photo courtesy of John Posada)
Tommy Meares was back to playing gigs a month and a half after his heart attacks. (Photo courtesy of John Posada)

Now, two years later, Meares continues to participate in cardiac rehabilitation three times a week to keep his heart healthy. He calls himself a "born-again gym rat."

"I realize how lucky I am to still be here," he said.

He's also grown close with his fellow patients. If a cardiac rehab regular doesn't show up for a session, Meares or another patient calls to check on them.

"We all look out for each other," he said. "It's a real good feeling."

Meares encourages new patients to stick with exercise, too. When one patient shared that she hated exercising, Meares encouraged her to focus on how she felt after each session. After completing her initial sessions, the woman is now paying for more.

"Tommy is a good advocate, not only for himself, but he's so willing to help everybody else," his wife, Marion, said. "He's on board with telling everybody how important it is to take care of yourself."

Tommy Meares (right) and his wife, Marion. (Photo courtesy of Tommy Meares)
Tommy Meares (right) and his wife, Marion. (Photo courtesy of Tommy Meares)

A year ago, the cardiac rehab director asked Meares to lead a singalong for the unit's lung patients. Meares printed out lyric sheets. The director had also invited New Jersey singer-songwriter Pat Guadagno to sing for patients. Guadagno backed up Meares on guitar and sang harmony during the singalong.

The patients briefly removed their oxygen masks to belt out John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." For the finale, they sang and swayed to "Hey Jude" from The Beatles.

Last summer when Meares' Motown band played at a local venue, the cardiac rehab director made a sign-up sheet for patients to attend. About 80 of them did.

"She encouraged everyone to go," Meares said, "because dancing is also really good physical therapy."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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