Cardiac rehab center helps heart attack victims recover
It happened without warning on a Saturday morning last December.
“I went out to my car and sat [there for a few minutes], came back inside, and that was it. I was on the floor. It happened, just like that,” said Clough, 64, who spent 10 days recovering at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.
Clough said coronary disease runs in his family. His older brother, Fred, suffered a heart attack at 63.
Along with the hereditary risk factor, Clough also had high cholesterol. The doctors told him to quit eating fast food and to exercise if he hoped to avoid a second heart attack.
“You’ve got to keep going — every day,” said Clough, who exercises for about an hour three days a week at the Cardiac Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center at Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont.
The center offers patients who’ve had a heart attack or stroke both practical guidance and the equipment to get back into shape.
“Several people have their own home equipment, but they can’t get to do it on a regular basis. Here, they have camaraderie. They’re mingling. They know that they have to be here and that they are going to exercise,” said Debbie Fitzpatrick, a registered nurse and program manager.
Fitzpatrick said patients who enter the program do so for one important reason: they don’t want to experience another heart attack or stroke. Usually, it was on the advice of their physician or cardiologist.
“The heart is a muscle. If you are sitting around, sluggish, you’re heart is not getting enough oxygen,” Fitzpatrick said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, about 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year – or one in every four deaths. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. More than half of the deaths due to heart disease in 2009 were in men.
Fitzpatrick said heart attacks are often caused by a blocked vessel or physical exertion after a period of inactivity, although stress and heredity also play a role. Heart attacks also tend to occur in seasonal clusters, usually during the winter months.
“In the summer, you don’t see a lot of heart attacks,” Fitzpatrick said.
Major risk factors include obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Studies show that without regular exercise after a heart attack, another is highly likely to follow.
It also depends on the amount of damage that has been done to the heart muscle or blood vessel by the first heart attack.
Bryan Briggs, an exercise physiologist, said patients in the program have been given an individualized plan that incorporates aerobic exercise and strength training.
The center offers a range of equipment including four treadmills, three Scifit machines for developing the lower and upper body, stationary bicycles, cable machines, step-up machines, physioballs, and low-impact free weights.
Briggs said the program is for six weeks on an outpatient basis. Each cardiac patient is given an exercise plan that usually consists of 45 minutes to an hour of aerobic exercise and strength training three times a week.
“It’s very important [to exercise] during the first 90 days after coming out of the hospital,” Briggs said. “The reality is most of the patients have a lot of accompanying risk factors that go hand in hand. It’s very rare that we get younger patients. However, it does happen.”
“I’ve had people in here as young as 27. My oldest in 88,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you keep the heart in shape, you won’t get congestive heart failure. It works your other body organs as well.”
About 40 patients are currently in the program, and the goal is to get the heart pumping and the blood running for a healthier cardiovascular system, she said.
Between exercises, patients will have their vitals checked including their heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure.
Bud von Ahnen of Charlestown, 74, said he entered the program after suffering a heart attack caused by a blocked artery on Sept. 13. For the heart bypass operation doctors removed a section of artery from his left leg, he said.
“I was at home watching TV. The pain wouldn’t go away, so I called for an ambulance,” von Ahnen said. “I decided to come here because my doctor told me I needed to exercise if I wanted to live.”
Like Clough, von Ahnen exercises vigorously for about an hour three days a week. He prefers to use the treadmills and Scifit, and lifts weights to build muscle strength.
“I am still having a problem with my leg, but otherwise, I am feeling good,” he said.
Joann Johnson of Charlestown, now in her 70s, joined the program after undergoing cardiac surgery for a blocked artery. She said the blockage developed from years of stress providing home care for a person with dementia.
“They told me it was the stress. I was under a lot of stress. I just knew something was wrong,” said Johnson, who liked to go on long walks to cope with the stress before her heart attack.
She now uses the treadmill at the center for about 90 minutes, three times a week.
“It’s a starting point, but I recommend it to anybody under stress,” Johnson said.