Heart-to-Heart program connects patients, cardiac survivors

Heart-to-Heart program connects patients, cardiac survivors

URBANA — The sudden chest pain that led to Carole Kirby's triple bypass surgery grabbed her by surprise.

"I was standing at my kitchen sink. I was getting ready to go to Bible study and I had a pain I'd never had before," she recalled.

A retired Champaign office manager, Kirby got to the hospital and had surgery quickly enough to escape damage to her heart, she said. But it wasn't just surgery that helped put her on the road to recovery.

Kirby was among many hundreds of cardiac patients who have been referred to a program at Carle Foundation Hospital called Heart-to-Heart, in which former cardiac patient volunteers visit current ones in the hospital.

The visitors listen to concerns and fears current patients have about their heart conditions and surgeries, they share their own experiences and tips and they serve as a reassuring presence.

After all, they've been through the same thing themselves, and here they are, back out there living their lives.

Kirby said her own heart episode happened so fast, she didn't really have time to think about bypass surgery beforehand. But she remembers it helped to talk to a former heart patient afterward.

"Once you get through the surgery, there's the light at the end of the tunnel when you see somebody, talk to somebody, who's been through it," she said.

Shining that light for Kirby was Jim Trail, a Champaign retired civil engineer who's undergone nine heart procedures.

Trail has been visiting heart patients twice a week for the past four years, and considers himself an example of successful heart surgeries.

During his patient visits, Trail shares his own experiences to help build bridges with current patients and strives to get those patients to open up about their own experiences and feelings. He's spent time with heart patients from their 20s to their 90s and found that a heart episode is a frightening prospect for everyone because people don't know what to expect.

"The younger ones are absolutely startled that it happened. They didn't expect it and it's a shock," he said. "On the other hand, I've had people in their 40s and 60s who are surprised, too."

His own need for heart procedures that began 14 years ago took him equally by surprise, Trail said.

"I led a life that is very active and still is, and I did not plan to have a heart issue," he said.

Trail said all visits between Heart-to-Heart volunteers and patients are confidential, so patients can speak freely — and they often can say things to a volunteer that they don't feel comfortable saying to their families or doctors.

He doesn't try to give anybody medical advice, he said. He does, however, share some things he's learned as a heart patient — the importance of taking medications that are prescribed, eating the right diet, staying physically active and undergoing the cardiac rehab advised after a heart episode.

He also advises not being afraid to ask doctors questions, and, he said, it helps to write those questions down in advance.

Kirby, who is undergoing cardiac rehab several times a week these days, said she returned to her life after bypass surgery with a new outlook.

For her, people and relationships now always come before all those things to do around the house.

"You no longer have a list," she said. "It just changes your whole way of thinking, because when you come that close, it's kind of a wake-up call."

Carle has fewer than 10 Heart-to-Heart volunteers and could use more to fill requests to expand this program, said Megan Holland, volunteer services director.

She's seen patients who participate in these visits experience stress relief, she said, and that's a health bonus.

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