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Cardiac Rehabilitation: Celebrating 25 Years of Mending Broken Hearts

July 13, 2010

On Wednesday, July 7, the Washington Hospital Cardiac Rehabilitation Program celebrated its 25th year of helping heart patients return to an active lifestyle after experiencing cardiac events ranging from heart attacks to coronary artery bypass surgery.

"We have even had three heart transplant patients participate in our program," notes Cardiac Rehabilitation Manager Phyllis Fiscella, RN, who joined the program in November 1985 as a nurse clinician. "Over the years, we’ve worked with thousands of patients, some of whom have been in the program for more than 20 years. In any given month, we have between 800 and 1,000 patient visits."

The program offers one-hour exercise sessions, with all exercises performed while the patient’s heart is monitored by portable monitoring equipment under the close supervision of an exercise physiologist and registered nurse. Registered dietitians from Washington Hospital provide counseling in heart-healthy diets and managing diabetes, which can be a contributing factor in heart disease. A cardiologist who serves as medical advisor is also available as needed.

"The program can help improve overall physical condition, strengthen hearts, control blood pressure and blood sugar, reduce stress and anxiety and restore patients’ self confidence," Fiscella explains. "It’s very rewarding for us to see the dramatic difference in our patients, not only in terms of their physical health, but also in their mental outlook."

Two patients who have been in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program for several years graciously agreed to share their experiences and insights:

Bob Creveling

Bob Creveling was a senior vice president in charge of the mortgage division for a major California bank when his doctor referred him to the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program in 1991. The hectic pace of his busy job in San Francisco made it difficult for him to get back to Fremont in time for the classes three times a week, however, so he quit going after six months. Then in 1993, while his wife was visiting relatives in Vietnam, he had to undergo urgent bypass surgery.

"Before 1993, I had three balloon angioplasty procedures and an atherectomy –a procedure that uses a catheter with a sharp blade on the end to remove plaque from blood vessels," Creveling recalls. "Unfortunately, too much scar tissue had built up in my arteries, so they had to perform the bypass surgery. My wife didn’t know about the surgery until my son picked her up at the airport when she flew home that evening."

Creveling returned to the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program following his surgery, and he has been a faithful participant ever since. "I try to go three days a week," he says. "I also incorporate techniques from the class into my everyday activities outside of class."

In addition to his heart problems, he has other health problems that have benefited from his participation in the program. "I have diabetes, which is a contributing factor to heart disease," he says. "I also had a major stroke and three smaller ones. Cardiac Rehabilitation helps me with stroke prevention and keeping my diabetes under control."

Like many other patients in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, Creveling belongs to a national nonprofit organization called Mended Hearts, and he previously served as president of the Washington Hospital chapter. Mended Hearts works in partnership with hospitals and rehabilitation clinics, offering visits to patients awaiting heart surgery, support group meetings, social events and educational forums.

"Mended Hearts would appeal to anyone with a heart condition," he notes. "We support each other, helping people to stop smoking or lose weight. We also have speakers on topics that are interrelated with heart disease. We learn a lot from other people in the group, too."

Creveling’s motivation for staying in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program all these years is simple: "Once you’re a heart patient, you’re always a heart patient," he explains. "This program has three huge advantages. First, having the medical staff there watching me while I exercise is very important. Second, I appreciate the discipline – I’m supposed to be there three days a week at 8 a.m. Finally, I appreciate the camaraderie with the other people who are heart patients as we do something positive about our conditions."

Now age 63 and looking forward to many bright years ahead, Creveling remarks: "I absolutely believe I am alive today because of Cardiac Rehab. I’m not going to quit!"

Doug Taylor

In 1986, when he was a technical publications manager for Peterbilt Trucks, Doug Taylor suffered a mild heart attack and ended up spending a week in the hospital. Fortunately, his cardiologist said Taylor did not need surgery, putting him on medications to lower his cholesterol instead. Two years later, even though another angiogram showed his arteries were clear, Taylor’s cardiologist referred him to the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.

"I decided to take early retirement, and I have devoted myself to staying in shape for the past 21 years that I have been in the program," he says. "I go three times a week – every Monday, Wednesday and Friday – at 9:15 a.m. I usually rotate my time among the elliptical machine, the stair climber and the treadmill, trying to get my heart rate up to 115 beats per minute.

"I go regularly because after my workout, it feels good to have gotten all the ‘bugs’ out," he adds. "You feel a lot better both physically and emotionally. Plus, when you skip sessions, you sure feel the lack of exercise when you go back!"

Taylor notes that he decided to continue in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program even after it was no longer covered by insurance because of the medical training of the staff. "People at regular gyms aren’t prepared to care for you like the people in Cardiac Rehab," he says. "The therapists lead the class, and there are nurses on duty. There also is a doctor on duty on the same floor of the building. There is always somebody there to take care of you."

Three years ago, Taylor was very grateful for that medical supervision when he started having an irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation) during his workout.

"My heart was racing at about 200 beats per minute," he recalls. "Phyllis (Fiscella) sent me to the emergency room right away, and they were able to get things under control very quickly.

"I am very happy with the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program," Taylor emphasizes. "They have an excellent staff – especially Phyllis, who is my ‘angel.’ Going to another gym just wouldn’t be the same. I have several friends who feel the same way."

Learn More About Cardiac Rehabilitation

Participation in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program requires a physician referral. Classes are held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at various times throughout the day. Most insurance providers, including Medicare, will cover12 weeks (36 sessions) following an acute cardiac event. The program offers the option of continuing after insurance coverage has expired for a fee of $8.50 per visit. Mended Hearts membership is open to anyone who has had heart surgery, heart attack, angioplasty, angina or other cardiac conditions. Family members and loved ones also are welcome. For more information about the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program or Mended Hearts, visit www.whhs.com/heart/cardiac_rehab or call 510-494-7022.

Congratulations to the staff of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program on the occasion of the program’s 25th anniversary:

Phyllis Fiscella, RN, Cardiac Rehab Manager

Ivar Blomquist, MS, Exercise Physiologist

Lani dela Rama, RN, Cardiac Rehab Clinician

Kathryn Pearson, RN, Cardiac Rehab Clinician

Nancy McGihon, RN, Cardiac Rehab Clinician

Valerie Barnard, RN, Cardiac Rehab Therapist

Fran Joslyn, RN, Certified Fitness Trainer