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Athos Rushovich: "I am living proof it can happen to anyone"

The big interview.

Published: 01/10/2021

Since his shock triple heart bypass earlier this year, Vitality Sales Director Athos Rushovich has returned to work with a renewed passion to spread the word far and wide about the value of financial planning. Insights Hub sat down with him to hear more about the power of private medical insurance and the importance of protection in light of his experience.

When Athos found out earlier this year that he needed open heart surgery it understandably turned his life upside down. A dedicated long-distance runner since his teens and no stranger to ultramarathons or 100-mile runs, Vitality’s Director of Specialist Health Sales and Dedicated Distribution felt almost bulletproof for much of his life - and that didn’t change during his early 50s.

“A triple heart bypass is typically associated with overweight people of a certain age, who smoke,” he told COVER magazine in a recent article. “At the age of 56, I am none of those things. I have never smoked and always lived a physically active lifestyle.”

A life of ultradistance running was ultimately not enough for Athos to avoid an outcome that in hindsight now appears inevitable – or worse had he not found out about his condition when he did. Despite a family history of severe coronary artery disease, which saw his father and grandfather die prematurely, Athos “foolishly thought” he’d “dodged that bullet”. But if it wasn’t for his annual Vitality health check the situation could have been a lot worse.

“Particularly if there is a remote chance of family history, screening is absolutely critical and I am living proof of that,” Athos points out. “I would urge that people don’t see the Vitality health check as a burden, but rather as a critical part of their physical wellbeing and probably mental health too.”

Rapid deterioration

Results from a health check in summer 2019 revealed Athos had both high blood pressure and high cholesterol for the first time, completely out of the blue. He was fast-tracked to his GP and put on statin medication despite there being no symptoms.

It wasn’t until November 2020, however, that his chest pains – which he initially thought were “sore lungs” as a natural sign of aging - got so bad that he could no longer ignore them. After struggling during a 50km run with his son Tom in February of this year, Athos saw a private cardiologist in March 2021. Following an ECG and angiogram in April, three weeks later he was booked in for a triple heart bypass. A realisation that came as a shock to Athos and all those around him. It all happened so quickly.

“It’s a scary, scary thing,” he admits. “I’m just so grateful that I was able to get access to treatment as soon as I did. The level of care I received from the doctors and nurses involved was first class.”

Access to treatment

Luckily, Athos was able to make a claim on his corporate private medical insurance (PMI) through Vitality to get fast access to treatment. However, a three-week wait – mainly due to a two-week period of self-isolation as a Covid-19 precaution – saw him living on what he found were “extremely debilitating drugs”; strong betablockers such as bisphenol, which dropped his blood pressure so low it was almost impossible to function. “I’ve since learned that those without PMI have had to endure months, even a year, on this medication while waiting for treatment. On top of this I dread to think what the outcome would have been for my family otherwise.”

Still in disbelief, Athos describes the surgery itself in gory detail, almost to hit home the extremity of such a procedure – as well as the astounding technical acumen needed to perform it. “I was stupid enough to find a YouTube tutorial on open heart surgery to find it is basically carpentry and plumbing with gooey bits,” he reflects. “After using saws, they put you together with stainless steel wire and during the operation your heart stops while they work on it for a number of hours to build bypasses to let the heart get what it needs to function to the right volume.”

Life-long lessons

It is not just the wonders of modern medicine that Athos has learned about during his experience. Alongside existential considerations spurred by a near-death encounter, he has returned to the industry with a refreshed outlook on what we do as a profession. “Not only have I realised first-hand that what we offer as an industry - and sell at Vitality - are great products that do what they are supposed to. We have a strong core purpose as an organisation – to make people healthier and protect and enhance their lives – and that is something we live and breathe as a business.”

Even Athos, who’s worked in the protection and health insurance industry for almost 20 years, was caught off guard from a financial planning perspective. “Events like these are truly indiscriminate, so being properly prepared is critical.”

He found himself “woefully short” when it came to having practical things such as an up-to-date will in place or a lasting power of attorney. “There were so many aspects I hadn’t considered: Am I an organ doner? Do I have a ‘do not resuscitate’ order so my wife and family are not burdened with the decision to turn off the machines? I even went to the length of choosing what music I wanted played at my funeral.”

The true value of financial planning

Considerations such as these have brought home the true value of financial planning to Athos. “Even if it costs money, it’s worth it,” he adds. “My plea is that people consider the amount they would save by having a trust in place to ensure their wealth is protected for the next generation. And that they have the right cover in place, such as Income Protection to ensure they can continue to pay the bills, for example, if they are self-employed. Or severity-based Serious Illness Cover so they get a lump sum pay-out that allows a client to get access to a payment earlier, based on the impact a diagnosis will have on their lifestyle.”

Having experienced it himself, Athos’ enthusiasm is driven by a desire to tell his story to raise awareness of the importance of taking out PMI and financial protection. His encounter with his own heart condition has in turn served as a powerful reminder of what’s at the beating heart of an industry focused on much more than just making a profit. “We can get so sucked into measuring the numbers in business, but the role we play in society should not be underestimated. It’s a really profound and important thing that we do.”

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