In 1988, at the age of 48, my stepfather had bypass surgery for a heart attack. The evening of his attack, he had chest pains and fearing the worst, drove himself to the emergency room of St. Joseph’s Hospital. “It’s indigestion,” they said. “Go home.” So that is what he did.
When the pains didn’t subside, he drove himself to the hospital a second time, where tests revealed he was having a myocardial infarction and showed blockage in four arteries. After successful surgery, he realized he was lucky to be alive, and at the time thought that if he lived another 10 years, he could say he’d lived a good life. He died in 2020.
A heart event or heart surgery isn’t a death sentence and can serve as a strong motivator to change poor habits and create good ones. Trinity Health’s Cardiac Rehabilitation program offers supervised exercise and lifestyle management to get patients on the right track.
To qualify for cardiac rehab, a patient must be referred by a physician. Referral usually follows heart surgery, a heart attack, coronary angioplasty, coronary stents, peripheral artery disease diagnosis, congestive heart failure, and recently added post-COVID debilitation. Cardiac rehabilitation has demonstrated benefits, yet fewer than 20 percent of eligible patients participate.
Cardiac Rehab is a team effort
Trinity Health’s Cardiac team consists of professionals from many disciplines that contribute to one’s overall health: nurses, respiratory therapists, exercise physiologists, diabetes educators, dieticians, pharmacists, and licensed mental health counselors.
“A patient that participates in our program is under an umbrella of really good protection,” said Heidi Zaderaka, respiratory therapist and cardiopulmonary rehab manager. “We are trained to assess symptoms, teach safe ways to exercise, and help patients safely progress on their journey toward a healthy lifestyle.”
Cardiac Rehab has three equally important parts:
Exercise training: All patients receive an individualized exercise prescription, which may include walking, stationary cycling, rowing, and resistance training – all ways that promote heart health. Patients are under the care of cardiac rehab professionals who monitor blood pressure and heart rate to ensure safe exercising.
Education: Education is a key factor in long term success. Cardiac rehab staff design a modification program unique to patient needs that focuses on achieving and maintaining a healthier lifestyle.
Maintenance: Cardiovascular health will improve while on the program but will only be temporary unless regular exercise is adopted as a permanent lifestyle change. Long-term plans at Trinity Health allow patients to continue to exercise at the cardiac rehab maintenance program as long as space is available.
“We try to visit with patients about our program post-surgery, while they are still in the hospital. This is when they are at their most vulnerable and most willing to change,” said Zaderaka. “Once given approval from their doctor, patients can come for up to 36 sessions, depending on insurance coverage. Every session includes 20 – 40 minutes of exercise, but education is part of everything we do. Patients learn safe ways to exercise, how to set goals, and better eating habits. They learn about nutrition: how to reduce salt, reduce cholesterol, and reduce fat. Patients also learn how to respond to risk factors with lifestyle modifications.
We help them understand they are on a journey, so the educational conversations are continual. Toward the end of their sessions, staff will start the conversation, ‘What are you going to do from here?’ We give them the tools to set long term goals.”
Clarence Aberle knows the routine well: at age 72, Aberle is a repeat participant of cardiac rehab’s services. His first experience in cardiac rehab was after having bypass surgery in 2019. He’s returned due to a recent surgery where he received a mitral valve clip.
Aberle attends rehab three times a week and his workouts usually entail 20 minutes on the treadmill, 10 minutes on the elliptical machine, and 8 minutes of rowing. On this day, he will push himself to row for 10 minutes.
“I really enjoy this program,” he said before his workout. “I am sticking with it because I followed it before and did really well.” Once he has completed rehab, he will continue exercising at the YMCA.
Cardiac rehab is a new experience for Paul Keeling. The 53-year-old had a heart attack on Halloween, and two days later underwent coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. He has been a regular in the rehab unit since late November 2021.
Keeling’s family history of heart disease played a large role in his health; however, he admits poor lifestyle choices may be likely contributors as well.
“My family has a lot of heart disease,” he said. “My dad had a heart attack at age 42, my mom had a heart attack, too. My diet wasn’t ideal,” he added. “I don’t really like vegetables, but I would eat a tomato if it were on a cheeseburger.”
Like Aberle, Keeling spends 20 minutes on the treadmill and is proud to point out that when he first started, he could walk for short periods of time at 1.8 mph. He is now up to a 3-mph pace, with increasingly challenging hill intervals. He also uses the elliptical machine and upper body cycle. Keeling’s maintenance will also include “a lot of diet changes,” as well as exercise. He takes his research seriously and pointed out that low sodium Triscuits have one third the sodium of regular ones.
For many like Aberle, Keeling, and my stepdad, Tom, heart disease was a wakeup call to make intentional choices that enhance one’s quality of life. Living to our fullest potential is a tall order, but ultimately up to us.
Trinity’s Cardiac Rehab program is certified by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and is part of the Trinity Heart Team. If you would like more information to see if you qualify for cardiac rehab, talk to your healthcare provider.