Catholic Sentinel photo
Providence Cardiac Rehabilitation Program exercise specialist Amy Ellsworth helps Alice Walker get the most from her work out.
Catholic Sentinel photo
Providence Cardiac Rehabilitation Program exercise specialist Amy Ellsworth helps Alice Walker get the most from her work out.

Although more than 600,000 Americans die of heart disease every year, millions are living with it. But how well they live, especially after a heart procedure, depends greatly on how active they can become. Research studies underscore what cardiologists have long believed – the best way to prevent a second heart attack, is to hit the treadmill after the first.

But that’s not always easy.

At 48, Portland resident Doug Zimmerman was lean and active, and lived a fast-paced life as a video producer by day and a regional theater actor by night. Heart disease was not on his radar.

One day in August 2010, he experienced shortness of breath and a racing heart. He attributed it to anxiety. It happened again a few weeks later. And then, again, Nov. 8 – but with more intensity. He finished his workday before calling his physician who told him to get the hospital. Zimmerman drove himself to Providence St. Vincent Medical Center’s emergency department. Tests indicated he had suffered a heart attack. Additional testing showed 98 percent blockage in three arteries. Providence heart surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, opened Zimmerman’s chest and performed a triple bypass. Zimmerman was in shock.

The diagnosis and surgery shook Zimmerman’s confidence. Being referred into Providence Cardiac Rehabilitation Program began to rebuild it.

“I wanted to take myself as far as I could go, to make sure it was all working,” Zimmerman said in reference to his participation in the cardiac rehabilitation program. “I figured if I am going to have a heart attack this is the place to do it.”

 “Even with people in their 40s and 50s who are athletes – when they suffer a heart event, they lose confidence,” said Charlotte Douglas, RN, Providence Cardiac Rehabilitation Program coordinator at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. “They are worried when they start the rehabilitation program, fearful they will hurt their heart if they exercise or run. Our constant monitoring of their heart as they exercise reassures them and helps them rebuild their confidence.”

Portland resident Len Ludwig, 74, agrees. He started with the cardiac rehabilitation program after an interventional cardiologist relieved pressure in his chest by using a stent to open up a blocked right coronary artery. “Charlotte and her team convinced all of us we should work hard because we wanted to do it,” he explained. “They instilled in us a belief that we could get stronger and better, they educated us and empowered us.”

The Providence program has served more than 500 patients since opening August 2009, ranging in age from 24 to 93. The men and women are referred by their cardiologists and commit to hour-long sessions three times a week for 26 weeks.

They are recovering from a variety of heart events including open-heart surgery, heart attack, stent placement, stable angina, and heart or heart and lung transplants. The patients work closely with registered nurses and exercise specialists who monitor them as they go through exercise routines to build endurance and develop workout habits. In addition, patients receive education and coaching to help develop healthier lifestyle habits. Their cardiologists are kept informed of their progress.

Douglas and her team typically work with eight to ten patients each session, using individualized rehabilitation plans. Patients incorporate treadmills, stationary bikes, hand weights and other equipment in gym to begin rebuilding body and heart muscle and tone. They are closely monitored to see how their heart is responding to the increased activity. About two-thirds of the patients in rehabilitation are men, but one of the women really stands out for Douglas.

“She had open-heart surgery and had to be on oxygen – she was told she would always be on oxygen,” explained Douglas. “This amazing woman was determined to get better and get off oxygen so she could visit her daughter overseas. And she did. She was so consistent with her exercises that she built up her strength and health and was able to leave the oxygen behind.”

“They did give me my confidence back,” recalled Zimmerman. “’I’d come in, hook up my wireless cardiac monitor and begin a series of exercises. The entire time someone was at a computer watching all my vital signs and monitoring me. I felt very safe.”

Suzanne Hall, M.D., Providence Heart and Vascular Institute Cardiac Rehabilitation medical director says that is exactly the outcome the program wants for its patients. “We know rehabilitation builds confidence and improves outcomes,” explained Hall. “We want to help patients gain strength, knowledge and improved quality and length of life,”

It helped improve the quality of 81-year-old Alice Walker’s life. The retired Providence cardiac nurse had open heart surgery to replaces a diseased aortic valve. “It was a difficult thing to go through, mentally and physically,” recalled Walker. “Once I started in the rehabilitation program I began to rebuild my strength and confidence with exercise – all while being monitored, it was extraordinary.” Walker said she has a lot of living to do with her four children and seven grandchildren – and she has the confidence to do that.

That’s exactly what Douglas wants to hear from her graduates. “I believe in prevention,” said Douglas. “Our goal is to help these men and women not have another heart event.” And they are succeeding. Only a handful of the 500 patients who have completed the program have experienced another cardiac event.