Originally published in January, 2009.
By most standards, Chicago Ridge-native Esther Johnson is not your typical 68-year-old. She scrubs her own floors, mows the lawn, and up until this past winter, shoveled snow from the driveway. She has even been known to replace a sump pump. Esther is certainly not afraid to get her hands dirty, and she embraces day-to-day challenges with enthusiasm and determination, not to mention a healthy independent streak. But her lust for life turned to fear this past March when Esther experienced a sudden heart attack while vacationing with her husband in Mountain Home, Arkansas.
A fall that occurred while unpacking moving boxes several weeks earlier had left Esther with a fractured knee cap and broken arm. She was still recovering from her injuries when she awoke on the morning of March 30, struggling to breath and with a slight tingling sensation in her arm. These were the only signs of trouble Esther had, and when paramedics arrived, they confirmed her suspicions. She was having a heart attack.
Esther underwent a triple bypass operation on April 2, and what was to be a 2 1/2- week getaway turned into a three-month struggle to recover. After nearly 30 days in the hospital, healing from both her limb injuries and surgical complications, Esther was finally able to return home in mid-June. However, persistent breathing problems and a slow recovery left her weak, debilitated and frightened.
“I was terrified that I would continue to have the breathing problems I had back in Arkansas,” Esther says. “And I kept thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ We had so many plans for our life, and I didn’t think we would be able to do any of them
after my heart attack.”
That was until she enrolled in Palos Community Hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation
program and learned, first hand, that neither her life nor her quality of life had to be sacrificed to heart disease. In fact, through Cardiac Rehab, Esther’s life, along with her health, would only get better, and in some rather unexpected ways.
A Full Recovery
In the United States today, there are roughly 7.9 million people who have survived a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), and another 8.9 million who have angina pectoris, or chest pain associated with reduced blood supply to the heart. As a result, nearly each and every one of these 16 million people struggles withsome form of physical limitation caused by heart disease, and along with the physical problems come fear, fear that their next
cardiovascular event will be their last.
Cardiac rehab treats both, the fear and the limitations. Cardiac rehabilitation is as much a part of a heart patient’s treatment and recovery as any surgery or medication. In some cases, rehabilitation is the treatment. Not only can cardiac rehab help a patient recover from heart surgery or treat an existing condition,
it also can significantly improve a patient’s health and reduce the risk of future
“Cardiac rehabilitation is a multi-phase program consisting of education, exercise, risk-factor identification and medication instruction,” says Peggy Remiasz, charge nurse of Palos Community Hospital’s Cardiac Rehab program, located at the PCH Primary Care Center in Orland Park. “The goal is to manage any lifestyle modifications necessary to improve health, speed recovery and decrease the likelihood of future cardiac events.”
The program is designed to help individuals who have had:
- A heart attack
- Coronary bypass surgery
- A heart transplant operation
- Lung transplant surgery
- Valve surgery (mitral and aortic)
Cardiac rehab consists of three phases, the first of which begins when a person is hospitalized for a specific cardiac condition or event. Phase I occurs in the hospital, and it is designed to teach patients about their condition, educate them about ways to take better care of themselves, and to get them mobile enough to perform the basic skills of daily life back at home.
If the first phase is designed to get patients back on their feet, Phase II teaches them to run, literally and figuratively. The primary focus of Phase II is to teach patients about their own specific risk factors for heart disease — hypertension, high cholesterol, being overweight, smoking, poor eating and exercise habits, and stress — and to help them get those risks under control through exercise, good nutrition and healthy lifestyle changes.
Patients are taught how to manage cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, control
weight and even how to stop smoking. They are given ongoing instruction on medication use, and can attend seminars on heart-healthy eating, stress management, emotional well-being and physical conditioning. “We offer
topics that address real-life situations, like what to eat at a party and how to eat healthy when eating out,” Remiasz says. “And because we have access to the resources of Palos Community Hospital, we can make referrals to other programs if the need is identified during rehab.”
But the overriding theme of the program is exercise. When patients first enroll in cardiac rehab, they undergo a health evaluation and stress-test review. Then an RN/exercise physiologist, with the help of a board-certified cardiologist, develops a prescription exercise program tailored to the patient’s individual needs. Three-days a week, patients return to workout, progressing at their own pace
according to each one’s restrictions and capabilities. At each session, their vital signs are monitored continuously. If a patient is exercising too hard, monitors will reveal that, and he or she will be asked to slow down. Similarly, if a patient is not working hard enough, nurses can help pick up the pace.
“On my first day of cardiac rehab, I was on the treadmill for only 1 minute and 55 seconds,” recalls Esther Johnson, “and I was terrified that I was going to have the same breathing problems that I had back in Arkansas.” Today, after only three months in the program, she’s able not only to walk 10 minutes on the treadmill but also do 35 minutes on the NuStep recumbent cross-training machine, 5 minutes of arm presses, and even a bit of strength training and cool-down stretches.
“I’ve lost about 5 or 6 pounds,” Esther continues. “It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to make me feel good. And when I leave here, I still feel so energized. My whole outlook has changed. Right after my heart attack, I was so scared that my husband and I would never be able to fulfill all the plans we had for our life. Now, I feel like I can do everything again.”
Cardiac rehab has not only improved Esther’s health and outlook, but it’s also improved her social life. “I’ve bonded with so many people who have been through a similar situation, and that’s really nice. And being together when he drives me to rehab has even brought me and my husband closer. Yes, three times a week is a lot of time, but what else are you going to do? Sit at home and worry about when you’re going to die?”
Unfortunately, less than 20 percent of patients in the United States needing cardiac rehab services actually receive them, reports the AHA. If you’ve experienced a cardiovascular event or are at high risk for one, this one small preventative step could significantly improve your quality of life and greatly reduce your risk of a future cardiac event. In fact, if the 80 percent of people needing cardiac rehabilitation services actually participated in them, we could not only improve the lives of millions of Americans but perhaps even lower the mortality rate of the nation’s No. 1 leading cause of death.
That’s a difference we can all live with.