By Karen D. Lorentz
Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to love your heart and to encourage someone you love to take care of theirs.
One of the best gifts you can give your Valentine, or yourself, is a heart health evaluation and a commitment to follow healthy heart habits.
A healthy diet, physical fitness, aerobic exercise, stress reduction, smoking cessation (and avoiding secondhand smoke), lowering blood pressure or cholesterol if too high, reducing alcohol consumption if needed, and losing weight if overweight are key components of encouraging men and women to adopt healthy habits during Heart Month.
They are also the “proven” ways to help prevent coronary heart disease (CHD) – a.k.a. coronary artery disease (CAD) – and heart attacks. And since heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States with one in four deaths caused by CHD, promoting those healthy habits makes sense. (In CHD/CAD, the coronary arteries that transport blood to the heart are narrow or blocked, a result of plaque – cholesterol and fatty material – buildup inside the arteries.)
For people who do experience a cardiac event or a heart procedure, there is help available to promote heart health and aid in recovery.
Physical therapy for the heart
Cardiac rehab is “physical therapy for the heart,” noted Dr. Michael Robertello, MD, FACC, FACP, FCCP, a Rutland Heart Center cardiologist who oversees the cardiac rehab program offered at Rutland Regional Medical Center (RRMC). Participants in the program meet three days a week for six weeks and do 90 minutes of exercise each time.
While doctors can help mend hearts after heart attacks with stents, pacemaker implants, and medicines or replace defective valves or other physical defects in open-heart surgery, Dr. Robertello stresses that “Cardiac rehab and exercise are extremely important… I tell patients that taking their meds is only half of what they should be doing for their heart. Exercise is an invaluable tool for helping the heart to stay strong and to recover from acute cardiac issues.
“There is abundant literature that shows patients who go through cardiac rehab have better outcomes, and our patients who have continued in the exercise program have done well for years without recurrence of issues,” Dr. Robertello said.
An assessment is done to determine readiness for cardiac rehab by the patient’s cardiologist who makes the referral to the program. “We review that before admitting someone to the program,” Dr. Robertello said.
Prior to admitting one man who was referred after having open-heart surgery, Dr. Robertello required an EKG. It turned out the patient was in atrial fibrillation (Afib) and was treated for it and monitored closely while in the program.
“It’s a great program. The nurses showed us how to use the exercise machines and kept an eye on us and monitored our heart rates. I felt safe and comfortable,” said John Lorentz, who completed the program after a valve replacement.
“The goal is to get people back to their normal activities as quickly and safely as possible,” noted Elizabeth Kyhill, MSN, RN, the senior director for the rehab program at Rutland Regional. Wearing heart monitors, which will signal any irregularities, participants work out on treadmills, rowing machines, and NuSteps (stationary bicycles) and use hand weights “to learn how to exercise safely and effectively,” Kyhill said.
“We also bring in hospital experts who address diet/nutrition, smoking cessation, medications, and stress management among other topics. Graduates leave with elevated knowledge and confidence,” she said, noting the socialization aspect of the program also aids in recovery.
“I learned a great deal and being in the same boat as others in a friendly environment was very helpful. It was very social; we talked to one another and you realized you were not alone – that’s important to your recovery,” Lorentz said, adding, “I looked forward to going to the program and continued exercising after it.”
Robert Johnston echoed his sentiments in a letter extolling “the conversations and humor” in his group. Beneficiaries of the program include “spouses, children, and friends [who] are reassured that we are being monitored and educated as we continued the recovery process,” he wrote.
More ways to help the heart
Other ways to protect and promote heart health include knowing risk factors like family history – especially important for people who are at increased risk, which includes women over age 55, men over age 45, and people who had a father or brother with heart disease before age 55 or a mother or sister who had heart disease before age 65.
Perhaps less well known is that loneliness, depression, broken heart syndrome, inflammation, diabetes, and extreme cold are also risk factors that put people at increased danger for heart disease or a heart attack. Improving social contacts and connections, seeking treatment for mental or physical risks, avoiding exertion like shoveling heavy snow in frigid weather, and talking to a doctor or primary care physician can all help.
If you are concerned about a problem or risk factor, consider asking your health provider for a referral to the Rutland Heart Center, which is located has a team of caring and compassionate heart specialists who are committed to heart disease prevention, detection, and treatment. It also has all the modern technology to assess and diagnose heart ailments – or rule out risky conditions – and keeps up to date on the latest equipment. Rutland Regional is fundraising to purchase a new nuclear medicine camera which will provide cardiac nuclear stress testing, a vital preventative procedure for outpatients with coronary artery disease. The new camera will enhance the patient experience and provide cardiologists with efficient, more precise images for better outcomes.
Cardiac Rehab program participants exercise under the watchful eye of Hope Carey, an exercise specialist, as part of their recovery and heart strengthening program at Rutland Regional Medical Center.