By Barbara Curtis
“Will I fully recover?”
“How will I get back to my old lifestyle?”
After heart surgery, it’s not uncommon to experience feelings of anxiety about the recovery process; in fact, up to 25 percent of people experience depression after having a cardiac episode. While the best medicine may come from our doctors, the best support often comes from someone who has been through a similar journey.
Mended Hearts, a national and community-based organization, offers the largest support network for heart and vascular patients. In July 2017, Chester County Hospital (CCH) became a satellite chapter of the organization to provide patients undergoing bypass surgery, valve replacement, and other cardiothoracic surgeries with a resource after surgery.
The group is led by the hospital’s nurse navigators and includes five volunteers: Tom Tarrant, Laurie Nemic, John Kovacs, John Palka, and the newest member of the team, Bill Bremner – all of whom have had their own experience with heart surgery.
For Tarrant, finding common ground is easy. “Room 12 was my room 2.5 years ago,” he shared, speaking of Chester County Hospital’s Critical Care Unit (CCU).
In 2016, Tarrant required triple bypass surgery after an attempt to put in a stent was unsuccessful. “I was told I would not live much longer without the bypass.” With such grave news, he couldn’t imagine not seeing his grandchildren grow up. He was scheduled for surgery a few days later.
Today, Tarrant and his fellow volunteers visit patients during their stay at CCH to help them begin the process of recovery. Each patient is given a guide containing important information about heart surgery and living a healthy lifestyle. A critical component the volunteers discuss is cardiac rehabilitation and the importance of exercise. According to the CDC, studies have found that cardiac rehabilitation decreases the risk of death within five years by 20-30 percent following a heart attack or bypass surgery.
“Heart surgery saps an incredible amount of strength from the body,” Tarrant explained, recalling his memories from recovery. “It’s critical to regain it, which is why nurses in the CCU start you walking right away.”
The volunteers talk each patient though every step of what’s to come in their recovery process – from home care in the first few weeks after surgery, to cardiac rehab, nutrition, follow-up care, and recognizing symptoms of depression, if they occur. In Laurie Nemic’s experience, providing guidance and a listening ear is key.
“Everyone’s heart surgery is different, but I find most patients take comfort in knowing that the person they are speaking with has been through a similar experience,” she said. “There are many times I speak with the patient and their families to help answer their questions. We are able to offer guidance on what one may expect in the weeks to come, and reassure them that they, too, have hope for a full recovery and a sense of normalcy again.”
A report conducted in 2015 found that patients who participated in the Mended Hearts program had lower readmission rates after surgery. Personal interaction with volunteers who have experienced similar events is what drives and helps most patients in the program.
And, it turns out that the volunteers get just as much out of the experience as those they visit. A study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, found that older adults who volunteer see positive mental and physical health benefits from their activity. “The best part of participating in the Mended Hearts program is seeing signs of reduced anxiety and the positive change in demeanor after my discussion with the patient” says Kovacs. “Being able to give others a sense of relief is why I decided to volunteer.”
Finding a sense of purpose is another reason many participate in the program. John Palka shares his story as a way to relate and empathize with others going through a similar experience. “I remember being so grateful to the volunteers who helped me after my own surgery, I swore I would pay it back,” Palka said, referring to Chester County Hospital’s previous cardiac volunteer program, the Zipper Club.
Since the launch of the program at Chester County Hospital, the volunteers have helped over 250 patients. The goal is to become a resource for not only patients and their families while they are waiting for their loved ones during surgery, but also to help them to feel more optimistic and hopeful on their journey through recovery.