Looking back, it seems hard to believe, but when it began 26 years ago, the very concept of a cardiac rehab department was revolutionary. Until that time, patients who had survived heart attacks, strokes or cardiac surgeries were sent home with vague instructions to "eat better and exercise more." Today, cardiac rehab departments like the one at East Jefferson General Hospital (EJGH) stand as proven weapons in the pursuit of successful cardiac rehabilitation and the prevention of future cardiac episodes. Registered nurse Janel Lemaitre, supervisor of East Jefferson's Cardiac Rehab Department, oversees a staff of 12 nurses and exercise physiologists specially trained in the area of cardiac rehabilitation. She has designed a three-stage program that is clinically comprehensive and flexible enough to meet the specific needs of each participant.
Stage One begins while the patient is still hospitalized. This phase educates patients and their families about how to ensure the fastest, most complete recovery and prevent future episodes.
Stage Two is a four- to six-week outpatient program at the hospital. During this stage, patients begin an individualized exercise program three days a week. Safeguards built into this stage include constant supervision, and patients wear heart monitors that alert the staff of any signs of trouble. During this stage, participants begin to meet others who share their experiences, revealing a common thread that can build an instant bond among participants.
Stage Three is an ongoing maintenance program intended to give participants the exercise, nutritional and emotional support needed to maintain positive prevention practices. Lemaitre points to bottom-line success as one key to the program's continuing growth.
"We see that patients who don't follow a structured program suffer higher rates of recurring problems, while our patients show a lower rate of recurrence. Also, the camaraderie among the group is key. They become a very important support group for one another."
Retired IRS agent Ken Haber is a Stage Three rehab participant. When he entered the EJGH Cardiac Rehab Program after suffering a heart attack in 1984, he had no idea what to expect. He had been warned that heart attacks are often followed by extreme fear and depression. Having been an avid tennis player, Haber knew the physical and emotional value of a good workout but was skeptical as he attended his first rehab session. He soon met dozens of other people who already had experienced what he was going through. Haber began relying on his fellow rehab partners as sources of both inspiration and competition, saying, "At first, walking 25 feet is difficult, but I just kept saying, if these folks have done it, I can."
Twenty-three years later, Haber credits the cardiac rehab program with his full recovery. "We all become great friends and supporters." Haber is such an advocate of the program that during his Hurricane Katrina evacuation, he found a hospital in Mississippi with a cardiac rehab program and started attending its sessions.
There now is a growing body of evidence that indicates both cardiac and cancer survivors recover more fully and combat future episodes more effectively when surrounded by an active support group. The EJGH Cardiac Rehab Program has 130 Stage Three and 75 Stage Two participants. Many of the Stage Three participants have been attending for more than a decade. They keep coming back because it's more than just an exercise group. They are survivors with a shared history.
Anyone who has survived a cardiac surgery or event should consider joining a rehab group. Experience has shown that participants will quickly reap the clinical and emotional benefits of being around others who share the experiences.