Member profile: Noel Nequin
As a young student in the Philippines, the son of two dedicated educators, Dr. Nequin dreamed of being an ambassador to a foreign country But his aunt, a physician practicing in the United States, inspired him to consider medicine. He attended the Far Eastern University Medical School in Manila, Philippines and moved to Chicago for his internship at Swedish Covenant Hospital, and both a residency in Internal Medicine and a fellowship in Cardiology at the Hines Veterans Administration Hospital. He began his practice as an attending physician in 1969 and only two years later was breaking new ground in cardiac rehabilitation.
Spend time with Noel D. Nequin, M.D., AMAA president since 1999, and you’ll spend it in the light of a world class smile, a genius in life, a natural role model. His smile can peel back the layers of the dimmest mood and rarely leaves his face. You may think you’ve found the key to life’s great puzzle. The answer is to eat heartily, laugh Out loud, and live fully. But don’t be misled by his light-hearted attitude. Noel Nequin has lived in overdrive, from high school valedictorian to a continuing string of career honors, and a running career that has spanned several decades and includes dozens of marathons and ultra-events; Dr. Nequin’s achievements have placed him at the top of his field. This year, the city of Chicago honored him with a stretch of North Francisco Street now named Dr. Noel D. Nequin Drive.
Although he once thought he’d pursue gastroenterology, he found his calling in cardiology and established himself in the field when he founded one of the country’s first cardiac rehabilitation programs in 1971 with one treadmill and one stationary bicycle using borrowed space at Swedish Covenant Hospital. This was a time when little thought was given to restoring heart attack survivors to an active life, let alone that vigorous exercise and a healthy lifestyle could reverse the course of heart disease. According to Dr. Nequin, “Many physicians still declared heart attack patients ‘disabled’ but as enlightened doctors began to refer their heart patients, it was difficult to meet the demand with our meager facilities.” Now housed in a multi-million-dollar facility, the Galter LifeCenter, itself a pioneer in hospital-based medical fitness centers, serves hundreds of cardiac patients a year.
The early ’70s also marked the humble beginnings of an inspiring running life: Dr. Nequin started running when he noticed that some of his cardiac patients were fitter than himself. He began running a modest three miles a day, a few times a week. “Completing three miles for the first time was a killer!” But in the spring of 1975 when Dr. Nequin was a guest speaker for the American Medical Jogging Association (the granddaddy of AMAA today) he met Dr. Roger Bannister, the world’s first sub-four-minute miler. Bannister awoke an inner voice that has driven Nequin to succeed throughout his life and he started running harder, longer, and better. Another mentor, Dr. Terry Kavanagh, a Canadian cardiologist, encouraged him to run his first marathon in Honolulu in 1977. He ran in the Boston Marathon the following April. Marathons led to ultra-distances including 50-mile and 100-mile events. Dr. Nequin organized a medically-supervised long distance program for selected, motivated cardiac patients and logged some of his own mileage alongside his patients.
In 1982, in an unthinkable twist of fate, Dr. Nequin, the super-fit heart doctor, became a case study himself. Halfway into a 100-miler, he developed chest pain and dropped out. This was the first symptom of a series of arterial blockages diagnosed and later treated with angioplasty over the next several years. Thousands of miles and decades of running are no guarantee against heart disease. Now to be a “role model” took on new layers of meaning and significance. Dr. Nequin was both heart doctor and heart patient and his own program surely helped to prevent a major cardiac event.
Dr. Nequin’s personal experiences reflect the history of cardiac rehab in general. “What started as rehabilitation for heart attack patients has progressed to early detection of heart disease, and now, to recognizing that the apparently healthy may not be that well and the focus must be prevention.” Despite advances in our understanding of heart disease, American culture still works at cross-purposes to health and well-being. Dr. Nequin worries that “as globalization expands, and our prevailing culture is exported to less developed countries, we are spreading the negative effects of our sedentary lifestyle and high fat diets.” Prevention is the golden key.
At 65 years old, Dr. Nequin has no apparent thoughts of throwing in the towel. He sees himself 10 years from now still “doing the same thing, only in an even bigger facility” Seeing patients one on one, doing stress tests, helping patients with their lifestyle management program, and being active in AMAA.” Dr. Nequin credits Ron Lawrence, M.D., and AMAA with a large role in his career, advancing the idea that “physicians can act as important forces in the lives of their patients by being positive role models, setting the example for an active, healthy life.”
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