Heart problems are no laughing matter, but at University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center (UM BWMC), patients in the cardiac rehabilitation program have plenty of reasons to joke and be happy.
Some of them battled life-threatening conditions to survive and are now healthy. Most of them get to experience the benefits of not only rehabilitation but also an atmosphere with a thriving social support network.
“We had 10 or 11 people in a group when I first started, and we would go out to breakfast together,” said Jim Southworth a 20-year veteran of the cardiac rehabilitation program. “It becomes your second family.”
HOW IT STARTED
Cardiac rehabilitation is designed to reduce cardiovascular risk, foster long-term healthy behaviors, reduce disability and promote an active lifestyle for patients with cardiovascular disease.
Severna Park resident Debbie Lund was the program’s first employee in 1985. She recalls the program being owned by another company, and ultimately moving to UM BWMC in 1994.
The program now has two focuses: cardiac rehab and pulmonary rehab.
Cardiac patients start with a supervised program that usually includes about 36 sessions over 12 weeks. They use treadmills, arm bikes, and other machines and equipment. After finishing the supervised program, patients can enter the main program.
In addition to exercise training, they receive nutritional counseling, and psychosocial interventions and referrals.
Currently, there are about 120 people in the maintenance portion and another 100 in the monitored segment. Overseeing them are six full-time staff members.
“For patients, there’s a big difference between here and going to a gym,” Lund explained. “Here, they get EKG (electrocardiogram) monitoring while they’re exercising.”
People enroll in rehab after recovering from heart attacks or coronary artery bypass graft surgery, or after valve repair or replacement, certain types of congestive heart failure, or after getting stents or having heart transplants.
The pulmonary program assists patients with fibrosis and lung cancer.
Patients are young and old.
“We’ve had people in their 20s in the program,” Lund said. “We’ve had people who have heart attacks after having children. The oldest person is probably 93.”
“WITHOUT THE PROGRAM, WE WOULDN’T BE HERE”
Southworth weighed about 250 pounds when he started experiencing chest pains while cutting the grass, and he ultimately needed quintuple bypass surgery. He joined the program at UM BWMC, and now 20 years later, soon to be 84 years old, he still reaps the benefits.
“Every time I drive by the gym and I see an ambulance, that reminds me why I’m here,” he said.
Joan Graham, a member of the program since 1999, has 12 coronary stents, which help widen clogged arteries to restore blood flow to the heart and treat coronary artery disease. Graham said UM BWMC’s care has saved her several times.
“One time, my heart rate shot up to 177 on the treadmill … and they helped me pull through that,” she said. “If I was at a gym, that wouldn’t have happened.”
Graham works out three days per week and aspires to live to 100 years old. When she heard whispers of the program potentially closing years ago, she voiced her support for it to stay.
“There would be a patient revolt [if it was closed],” she said. “Without the program, we wouldn’t be here.”
Don Grempler initially came to UM BWMC because his wife had lung cancer, but he later had to rely on the hospital for his needs when he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2003. Grempler is also a 20-year survivor of prostate cancer.
Lung issues present challenges that are separate from heart issues.
“With lung disease, patients get short of breath, so they stop doing their exercise,” Lund said. “By the time we see the patients, a lot of them are debilitated. When you are so deconditioned, it’s hard to break the spiral of inactivity.”
Lund said patients are “pretty independent, but if something does happen, we are there.”
When the program started in the ‘80s, there were problems with coverage, but physicians are now doing a better job referring patients, Lund said.
“Exercise was not accepted for every disease,” she said. “Now we exercise all those patients.”
The exercise is good for patients, extending their lives, and UM BWMC gives them a safe space full of comradery.
“We come here three times a week, and for one hour, everybody relates to what we’ve been through,” Graham said.