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Photography by Everett Dennison

Mike Lieske woke at 6 a.m. on April 16, laced up his sneakers and headed out the door of his Lake Village home in Nokomis. It was a breezy 70 degrees and he planned to clock about four miles around the neighborhood, something the retired manufacturing executive did nearly every day for most of his life.

But Lieske was feeling lousy and cut his run short. Not willing to give up on exercising altogether, he headed to Nokomis Beach for a fast walk. But after 10 minutes on the beach, severe nausea swept over him. He climbed into his car and drove home. His neck, shoulder and lower chest ached, too.

“I thought it was part of a gastrointestinal problem I’d been having,” says Lieske, 67.

At 6 feet, 185 pounds and with a normal blood pressure, Lieske considered himself to be in decent shape, so he wasn’t too worried.

He went to bed at 10 p.m., jolting awake at 2:30 a.m. with upper chest pain that would not subside. He woke up his wife, Judy, who drove him to the Venice Regional Hospital emergency room. “They took one look at me and knew I was in trouble,” Lieske says.

Lieske’s heart stopped in the emergency room, bringing a dozen doctors and nurses to his side to shock him back to life. He was rushed into surgery, where doctors implanted two stents to open a blood clot. Lieske spent five days in the hospital and returned home to face an uncertain recovery.

“I was kind of in shock,” Lieske says. “I never had the typical symptoms, no high cholesterol, no high blood pressure; it came out of nowhere.” Lieske says his doctor told him that an inherited heart disorder likely caused a blood clot to form in the bottom part of his heart.

Lieske had problems with his Medicare insurer and could not get the company to pay for cardiac rehab, which can easily run into thousands of dollars. So he called around and connected with cardiac nurse Julie Hunt at the YMCA.

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Julie Hunt

Hunt, also a certified personal trainer, created the Cardiac Club Maintenance Program about 11 years ago, after spending years working for a doctor-run cardiac rehabilitation clinic. After a heart attack, Medicare and private insurance generally cover 36 visits in a so-called “Phase II” rehabilitation clinic, Hunt says. But when insurance is exhausted, or people have no insurance coverage, they have few affordable options.

The YMCA program, considered a “Phase III” maintenance program, fills a true community need, by offering a medically based exercise program that provides support and guidance for as long as clients want it. People with cardio or pulmonary histories pay a one-time $60 fee plus a month-to-month YMCA membership that runs about $50 for an individual.

“We signed up immediately,” says Lieske. He says he was never much of a gym guy, preferring instead to exercise outside. But he decided to give it a try. His wife joined the YMCA, too.

Hunt begins with a new client by taking a health assessment, going over medications and concerns and communicating with a client’s doctors. “I design a program taking into consideration what they’ve been through,” she says. “I coach them for as long as they need it.”

Cardiac Club members receive four or more hour-and-a-half sessions with Hunt and two weight training sessions.

After that, Hunt provides ongoing encouragement. People who want more specific training are connected with one of the YMCA’s personal trainers.

Hunt says she gets people stronger through “cardiac conditioning” exercises that gradually challenge them.

“In about four to six weeks, they typically will be able to exercise at a moderate pace,” she says.

Lieske says he started out slow, doing 10 minutes of cardio two weeks after his heart attack. A few weeks into the program, he tried to up his minutes beyond Hunt’s recommendation. Hunt, who works in a glass office on the YMCA’s second-floor cardio exercise room, scans the room like a mother hawk to make sure everyone in her club is exercising at the right pace and no one is doing more than he should. It didn’t take her long to catch Lieske.


“You have to be careful about how you increase intensity,” Hunt says. She nudged him to stick with the program.


With portable equipment, Hunt can monitor heart rate and get a quick read on heart rhythm with a “mini-EKG” machine. The equipment reassures people who are uneasy about exercising soon after a heart attack.

Cardio Club members exercise along with other YMCA members; the only thing distinguishing them is a clipboard with a yellow exercise-tracking sheet. Lieske says it’s comforting to see all those yellow sheets in the gym. “It’s amazing to find out how many folks have had heart attacks,” he says.

With the YMCA’s small-town friendly atmosphere, and Hunt’s outgoing personality, introducing her clients to one another, it didn’t take long for the Maintenance Program to morph into a true club. There are now about 250 active Cardiac Club members, with about 60 new clients joining every year.

Cardiac Club members meet informally for coffee and conversation in the YMCA’s lounge after exercising. Hunt hosts an annual holiday party, and members pitch in with potluck dishes. Deep friendships have formed.

“It’s one of the most important things that happens,” says Hunt. “They find each other, support each other and that’s a big part of why the program is successful.”


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Hunt with Jim Stinson, a 90-year-old member of the Y program.

Ninety-year-old Jim Stinson joined the maintenance program 11 years ago when Hunt started it. “I didn’t have any energy to do anything,” he says.  With Hunt’s support, he grew stronger as he grew older, now exercising five days a week, riding the bike, using the treadmill or stair stepper.

“I’ve lost weight. I just feel good,” says Stinson, who regularly meets for coffee with other members.

Stinson and a dozen or more other people take up a big chunk of the YMCA lounge, most late mornings, sipping coffee and shooting the breeze. “I’ve got three distinct groups,” Hunt says. “There’s the early morning 7:30 a.m. group; the 11 a.m. group, and the people who come between 1 and 3 p.m.”

Many of the Cardiac Club members come to the YMCA through Venice Regional Bayfront Health. The hospital, recognized as one of the top cardiac hospitals in the country, offers open-heart surgery, an ambulatory care center and a home health agency. After exhausting services covered through insurance, many people transition to the YMCA program to learn how to exercise safely and build life-long healthy habits. Sometimes Hunt will bring in speakers and hold workshops.

Lieske says Hunt has played a big role in getting him back into shape. “She’s very easy to get along with and is encouraging,” says Lieske, who is now a gym guy, exercising five days a week at the YMCA. “I’ve come to love the routine, the options and the variety. No matter what time of the day I’m there, I see club members down there working out. For some folks, it’s a real social hour.” Many of the Cardiac Club members have been around for a decade or longer.

“After people have a heart attack, they lose their confidence,” Hunt says. “This is where they get it back. It’s a wonderful feeling to see it happen.”

SKY Family YMCA Cardiac Club Maintenance Program, for adults with cardiac and pulmonary histories. Doctor approval required.

Cost: $60 one-time fee, plus about $50/month for a YMCA individual membership that can be canceled or suspended.

Includes: Four or more 1 ½-hour sessions with a cardiac nurse, two optional strength training sessions, ongoing support and a social network; YMCA classes, pool and exercise equipment at the Venice and Englewood branches.

Contact: Julie Hunt, (941) 375-9123,