HEART patients in south Gwent are staying fitter and living longer thanks to 20 years of trailblazing developments in cardiac rehabilitation.

Wales' first cardiac rehab programme began in Newport in 1987 and patients and staff past and present have celebrated two decades of work, the benefits of which have spread across the country.

South Gwent cardiac rehabilitation service, based at Newport's St Woolos Hospital, runs a six-week, post-treatment rehab programme for heart attack and heart surgery patients, and a similar programme for angina patients.

Each programme caters for up to 20 patients at a time, with the emphasis on exercise, education and stress management, with the service run by Angela Knott, clinical nurse specialist for cardiac services, and heart nurses Eileen Knight and Eileen Symonds.

Patients choosing to go on the programmes can afterwards switch to a community-based class convenient to them.

All of which is a far cry from the late 1980s when Jill Evans, then a staff nurse on the Royal Gwent Hospital's coronary care unit, set about developing a cardiac rehab programme.

"I felt strongly that people were not getting the support they needed after treatment, to make the lifestyle changes important to their future health," she said.

Jill, now Gwent Healthcare Trust's equality and diversity manager, became Wales' first cardiac rehab nurse and the south Gwent service was in 1994 the first in Wales to open a dedicated unit. A north Gwent service was established in 1991.

"Cardiac rehab is now a mainstream part of patient care. That was unthinkable 20 years ago," she said.

"It has a massive impact on quality of life and in helping people live longer, but in the early days it was like trying to sell a dream.

"Back then there was not much of evidence around to show rehab was a valuable aspect of post-treatment care."

Jill paid tributes to Ron and Gaynor Colbourne, who run the Gwent Cardiac Rehabilitation Trust Fund charity which has funded aspects of the service such as equipment and staff training.

"Without their dedication this service could not have developed as it did, because we had no funding then," she said.