Judy’s Lifesaving Journey
A Powerful Transformation Through Cardiac Rehabilitation
Last September, 66-year-old Judy Wright “graduated” from the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at Northern Hospital of Surry County … and, instead of a diploma, she got a new lease on life! Judy’s path to Northern’s life-saving program took several years. Following the death of her beloved mother three years earlier, Judy grew increasingly weak, fatigued, light-headed, and short of breath. On several occasions, she was stopped in her tracks, literally, as a cascade of symptoms simply overwhelmed her body – forcing her to sit or lie down. And, despite a decreased appetite, she also gained weight (which she would learn later was due to fluid retention). “I thought I was just having anxiety attacks,” she said softly, “and that if I took some vitamins, I’d feel better.” Eventually, she became so weak she had difficulty moving from one room to another in her own home.
At her husband Bud’s urging, she went to see a local Physician’s Assistant, who quickly said, “You’re not having anxiety attacks; you need to see a cardiologist — now!’” Within minutes of seeing a cardiologist, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and, because her heart was functioning at only 15% of its ability, she was admitted immediately to Northern Hospital – where, she says, the physicians and nurses “saved my life!” After an initial and harrowing six-day hospital stay and subsequent shorter one, Northern cardiologist Tamas Balogh, MD, referred Judy to an academic medical center in Winston-Salem for a cardiac catheterization procedure and further testing. Eventually, Judy’s heart was stabilized sufficiently to permit her caregivers to recommend her participation in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.
Northern’s Cardiac Rehab Program
Northern Hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program was established sixteen months ago, in partnership with Wake Forest Baptist Health. “Our clinical team develops customized therapeutic programs to help patients recovering from heart problems stay healthy,” explained Connie Paladenech, who manages the transformative program. The majority of patients referred to the program by their physician have previously experienced a heart attack; required some form of cardiac interventional therapy (such as coronary-artery bypass graft surgery, valve repair or replacement, or stent placement); or been diagnosed with stable angina or congestive heart failure. “Ours is a medically directed, multidisciplinary outpatient program that typically lasts 12 weeks,” says Paladenech. The clinical team – which includes cardiologists, nurses, clinical exercise specialists, and nutritionists – works together to provide a comprehensive, holistic approach to improving the health of patients.
Each patient’s individualized care program includes four key components: monitored exercise training (both aerobic and strength training); heart-health education to help patients manage their conditions; dietary guidance to reduce risk factors, such as obesity; and support to reduce stress and quit smoking. “When someone has a heart attack or other major cardiac condition, it’s a life-changing event that is both physical and emotional,” says Paladenech. “A lot of stress hormones are released, so we help patients understand what stress is – what their stress triggers are, and how best to prevent or cope with stress situations.”
One Step at a Time
When Judy first entered Northern’s Cardiac Rehab suite, she was very skeptical … and frightened. “I saw all these other people with heart problems exercising on treadmills and using resistance equipment, but I was sure I was going to die,” she says. “When they finally put me on a treadmill, I thought, ‘Is my heart going to blow up or just stop?’”
According to Paladenech, Judy’s initial fear is quite common. “Most patients feel that same way at first, but we work closely with them to assure them that their efforts are constantly monitored through direct observation by the staff and a mobile telemetry unit ‘worn’ by each patient to gauge their heart rate,” she said. “For us, exercise is medicine – and, like medicine, it needs to be carefully dosed and closely monitored.” With her fear in check, Judy was spurred on by the knowledge that her heart – a hard-working muscle – could be rebuilt … so she set about walking, pedaling, and weight-lifting her way to a healthier heart. “After about three weeks, I realized my heart wasn’t going to blow up, so I started to get competitive with myself and told myself ‘Let’s see how much more you can do this week than last week.’” Her persistence paid off. By the time Judy completed her individualized 12-week program, she was pacing on a treadmill, elevated to a seven percent incline, for 40 uninterrupted minutes. And with every step, her heart grew stronger. “Based on my latest echocardiogram, my heart function is back to normal,” reports Judy proudly. “It went from 15% to totally normal!” Judy is quick to credit the Rehab staff with helping her achieve her goals. “They’re all saints!” she exclaims.
“Everyone there keeps you motivated and going, and they encourage you every step of the way. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for that team…” she says, her voice trailing off and her eyes starting to glisten with tears of gratitude. Although Judy “graduated” from the Cardiac Rehab Program, she continues to follow her personalized “Action Plan” developed by the Cardiac Rehabilitation specialists – which involves a combination of aerobic/strength-training activities and lifestyle changes. She also returns to the Rehab suite every three months to attend the program’s “Mended Hearts” support group for current and former participants.
A Heart-Healthier Future
“We’re all very proud of Judy’s determination and hard work,” says Connie Paladenech, who has seen many other patients achieve the same outstanding clinical results through a combination of personal determination and clinical guidance by the Rehab staff. Northern Hospital’s Cardiac Rehab program has grown exponentially since its opening day last spring. “We now have 50 active participants,” says Paladenech, “and we are continuing to look at ways to further expand our operations so we may continue to meet the needs of patients.” And that need is ever-growing: according to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the #1 cause of death and disability in the United States – with about 475,000 people experiencing a first heart-attack every year; and some 150,000 of prior heart-attack patients having another attack each year.
Paladenech and her team of certified rehabilitation specialists are ready to meet that need. “Ours is a maturing program with a focused, well-trained staff and excellent outcomes,” she says. “Studies show that, for someone who has had a heart attack, there’s a 38% less risk of having a subsequent attack if they’ve attended a cardiac rehab program. “Northern Hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program will continue to offer the latest advances in treatments and protocols so that all our patients may achieve their clinical goals and subsequently maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle,” Paladenech adds.