Waitress Samantha Lister had open heart surgery at 21 years old.

Waitress Samantha Lister had open heart surgery at 21 years old. Photo: Rohan Thomson

WHEN waitress Samantha Lister started having dizzy spells, she thought she was suffering the effects of fatigue. To her shock she discovered she had been potentially just days away from dying from a heart attack at the age of just 21.

The netball player is not the only young Canberran to turn up to hospital with unexplained problems to discover it is something more sinister.

In the past financial year 171 patients aged younger than 40 have arrived at Canberra Hospital's emergency department with heart problems and some, like Ms Lister, were days away from a heart attack or cardiac arrest.

Chris Logue from Calwell is 36 and is recovering from open heart surgery.

Chris Logue from Calwell is 36 and is recovering from open heart surgery. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

''When I went to the rehabilitation program after my operation, all the old people who had experienced heart problems were asking why I was there, being so young,'' she said.

She played sport and did not smoke but had an undiagnosed heart defect since birth, only discovered by a doctor after she had dizzy spells on a netball trip to New Zealand. The valve taken from a pig and inserted into Ms Lister's heart must be replaced every 15 years.

She takes aspirin daily to thin the blood. Crucial to her are the lessons she learnt at the ACT's Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, a six-week initiative for heart surgery patients which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.

Program manager and nurse Margaret Flaherty said she had recently seen an increase in younger people hospitalised with heart problems. For many, the problems are caused by stress at work. For some others it is smoking. The program focuses on behavioural change, such as eating better, exercising more and stressing less. ''We try not to preach to them,'' she said.

Public servant Chris Logue went to hospital this year after waking up one night with back pain.

He then woke up in hospital surrounded by 70- and 80-year-olds who talked of how they had survived two or three heart attacks. Mr Logue soon discovered he had survived one heart attack aged just 36. ''It was a bit of a surprise,'' said the man who now has a 2.5-centimetre titanium stent in his heart.

The father-of-two has lost 17 kilograms since the six-week rehabilitation program following his keyhole surgery.

He changed his diet, cutting back on portion sizes and lollies. These days, he walks for half an hour during his lunch breaks and gets off the bus a stop or two early so he can walk further.

The 20-year reunion of the rehabilitation program, which will bring together some of the 5500 patients it has helped, as well as their carers, will happen at the Southern Cross Club in Woden, on Saturday.