• Cabana Cafe & Bar is run by Josh and Daniel Duffy Sykes. They're Heart Research Australia ambassadors and they're men in their 20s with pace makers. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Cabana Cafe & Bar on the NSW Central Coast has unusually young owners: they're both under 25 and they also happen to wear pacemakers.
Lee Tran Lam

7 Oct 2021 - 7:53 PM  UPDATED 8 Oct 2021 - 4:01 PM

Cabana Cafe & Bar is run by Josh and Daniel Duffy Sykes – the youngest siblings to be fitted with pacemakers in Australia.

"All our problems started four years ago," explains Daniel Duffy Sykes, the head chef at the cafe in Copacabana on the NSW Central Coast. 

He was only 21, and his brother was just a year older, when their heart issues began. 

Daniel's first incident happened in 2017, on his way to Icebergs Dining Room and Bar in Sydney's Bondi, where he was working at the time. "I blacked out as I got off the train," he says.

Not long after, Josh's heart stopped while he was sleeping. This was "pretty scary", as it resembled sudden adult death syndrome, "which is what dad passed from", Daniel says. They were kids when their father died in his sleep – he was only in his 30s at the time. 

The brothers underwent tests for everything from stress to epilepsy, to determine what was causing their problems. They ended up having loop recorders surgically inserted into their bodies to monitor their hearts. "It was the size of about five matchsticks put together," Daniel says of the device. 

The siblings are keen to raise awareness about heart conditions in other people their age.

"It was a little surreal for a few days later, seeing a piece of metal in your chest," he adds. "We kind of got over it, just because of the size of it, it wasn't that big. And we're not people that care about having your shirt off." 

The loop recorders were removed from their bodies after a few weeks and analysed by doctors.

"They saw the readings and were like: 'ah, you guys are going to have to get a pacemaker'," says Daniel.

"They saw the readings and were like: 'ah, you guys are going to have to get a pacemaker."

He considered himself lucky compared to his grandmother: her old pacemaker, back in the day, was "a huge box on the outside of your chest'. His device is a small circle, about 1cm-thick, like a USB with wires connected to it.

"The pacemaker is hilarious. I'll wear a T-shirt and you can see the imprint through the T-shirt," he says.

He was working at Barangaroo House after he had his pacemaker installed in 2018, and his recovery process came with strict instructions: he wasn't allowed to lift his left arm above his shoulders, which was tricky for someone whose job regularly involved moving large pots and unpacking deliveries in the cool room. 

"You just asked your mate next to you, if they can help out," he says. Daniel was a "little anxious and nervous" about imposing on his colleagues, but he was "lucky" they were so accommodating and considerate. "They were always grabbing things for me."

They also helped him with making staff meals and made sure he wasn't in the way of hot pans as they pulled them out of ovens. His sous-chef also walked him to his door, to ensure Daniel didn't pass out while travelling home. 

Recovering from the pacemaker procedure was challenging: he had to sleep on his back for four weeks, and he couldn't turn the hot water up too high when showering, because it'd affect his pacemaker. The chef's experience, though, was pretty smooth compared to what Josh endured. His brother's pacemaker essentially 'crunched' because of where it was placed. "They were trying to help him by putting it in his muscle, and he'd be able to look in the mirror and he wouldn't see it all," says Daniel. But this well-intentioned move backfired and the device had to be removed. "So he had two pacemakers within a year."

That's when the brothers realised their rehabilitation would be a lot easier if they were living closer to each other. "We really couldn't be an hour and a half away from each other anymore," says Daniel, who was renting in Sydney, while his family home was in Saratoga on the Central Coast. "So we moved in together."

Brent Devetak – Daniel's first boss and an old friend – offered them work at his Cabana Cafe & Bar in nearby Copacabana. Daniel became the head chef and Josh was installed as manager. "He was doing light work like clearing tables, talking to people, managing staff," says Daniel. This suited Josh's recovery process, where he had been instructed to avoid heavy-duty tasks.

With a baby on the way, Devetak sold them the business in late 2019. Becoming cafe owners in your early 20s has its own challenges – add a pandemic and things get even more complicated. Especially with the brothers' heart issues. They were told their situation made them as vulnerable to COVID-19 as someone in their 80s with bad health.

"We were told we'd have to stay inside until everything was over with COVID – and we'd just signed on for a business of hospitality, where face to face [interaction is essential]," Daniel says. 

Luckily, the transition to takeaway during the various lockdowns, and the assistance from their staff, meant they could still operate safely. Demand for their burgers, nasi goreng and baked goods has stayed strong throughout this period. 

As for life with a pacemaker, three years on and it's been pretty easy to adjust to, says Daniel. 

"My pacemaker, it works for 10 per cent of the year, it will kick in [only when necessary]. I'm very lucky, I'll maybe have three episodes in a year," the chef says. "Where Josh is a bit different, his works 90 per cent. He'll have up to... 20 episodes a day. He's on a waiting list now for the next part, a transplant."

Daniel, who turns 25 in December, knows the siblings are in a unique situation. It's obvious when they're in waiting rooms for their condition. "There'd be 10 people in the waiting room and nine of them are 85+ and they're all staring at us," he says. 

Due to his age, Daniel's very keen to raise awareness about heart failure to other people in his age group – particularly as heart disease is the leading cause of death for men in Australia.

"We're lucky enough to be asked to… become ambassadors for Heart Research Australia," he says. They'll be taking part in Red Feb next year and they want to be accessible to people with similar health conditions. "Anyone who has problems or [is] going through a big surgery or whatever, can contact us or come into the cafe," he says. The chef knows how important it is to find the upside in what's happened to them.

"We're stoked to be able to use it in a positive way."


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