Cardiac rehab program revitalizes both body, mind

CHAMPAIGN – Getting back to everyday life after a heart attack requires some adjustment.

But Jim Doyle of Champaign didn't have to tackle it alone.

The eight weeks he spent in cardiac rehab after his November 2008 heart attack boosted not just his physical recovery, but his mental and emotional states as well, he says.

"I couldn't imaging going through this experience without the rehab," he says more than a year later.

Cardiac rehab is a program of supervised exercise and health education offered by both Provena hospitals in Urbana and Danville and Carle Foundation Hospital/Carle Clinic to help get heart patients back on the road to everyday life. Patients are typically referred to rehab after they've had a heart attack, a heart transplant, coronary bypass surgery or another heart procedure, or to manage chest pain caused by narrowed arteries.

Fear and depression are common emotions after a heart episode, and cardiac rehab strives to help patients overcome that, says Brian Luchetti, manager of the cardiac rehab program at Carle.

"Many people have been through this, and are doing more than they were before," he adds.

A 54-year-old information technology professional, Doyle says his heart attack took him by surprise. He felt he was in reasonably good shape as a nonsmoker who kept his weight under control and often rode his bicycle to work.

But there was a significant family history factor. Doyle wound up being the fourth sibling in his family to have a heart procedure, he said.

He'd also overlooked a few other risk factors, he realized later: his high blood pressure, his less-than-healthful diet that frequently included fast food for lunch, and the fact that he'd been tuning out his doctor's advice to lower his cholesterol.

After his heart attack, Doyle learned just how close to the edge he'd been living: He had five blockages to his heart, four of which were immediately propped open with stents, and he wound up being rushed back to the hospital two weeks later after two stents collapsed.

Doyle says he's a glass-half-full kind of guy who likes to focus on the positives, even for his heart attack: He recognized the warning signs fast enough to get to the hospital on time and get the medical attention he needed.

And he had the insurance coverage and time away from his job to get through the full 24 sessions of cardiac rehab at Carle, he said.

"I felt very, very positive about the rehabilitation process. They start you with baby steps, and by the end of eight weeks, you think, I can do things again. I can move around. Because, initially you're scared, because you don't know what you can do any more," he said.

Doyle says he's taken what he learned in rehab to heart and is making better food choices now. Since his rehab ended last February, he's lost some weight and kept up the exercise.

And he's learned to respect his new limits. Outdoor activities like running during the winter and snow shoveling must be avoided because the cold makes his chest ache.

He also learned how to use deep breathing to control the anxiety he felt after his heart attack when he'd find himself in a crowded place, he said.

Not all patients get the benefit of cardiac rehab, though local hospitals encourage heart patients to complete the program.

Completing cardiac rehab is especially important for elderly heart patients, according to a study published last month in "Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association." Researchers in that study found elderly heart patients on Medicare were less likely to have heart attacks and die within four years if they completed all 36 cardiac rehab sessions reimbursed by Medicare.

But use of cardiac rehab is low, the study pointed out. Fewer than 20 percent of people eligible for it ever go, and women and minorities go to rehab less than white men do.

The elderly sometimes miss out on cardiac rehab because they lack transportation, says Mary Ficek, a cardiac rehab nurse at Provena Covenant Medical Center. Other reasons people don't go: Some lack the insurance coverage and some can't take the time away from work, she said. And younger people sometimes think this program won't make a difference for them.

Yet the benefits for those who attend are many, she says: Patients learn to ease back into physical activities while medical professionals are monitoring any change in their condition. They learn to live a more healthful lifestyle and reduce their risk factors.

What's more, Ficek and rehab program coordinator Brittney Cromwell say, patients get reassurance that what they're going through is normal healing.

And don't discount the camaraderie factor. While the program is individualized for each patient, Luchetti said, the patients attending together often swap heart stories and develop friendships.

Eleven months after finishing rehab, Doyle says he's adjusted to his "new normal" life, and feels he's doing pretty well.

"You just kind of have to say, maybe I just have to slow down a little bit," he said.

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