August 27, 2008

Cardiac Rehab Turned One Woman’s Life Around

By Jane Oppermann

At age 70, Jeanne Franz figured she got enough exercise just taking care of her home and keeping up with her 13 grandchildren.

But that changed when the Palatine resident had a heart attack two years ago.

Today, the 72-year-old takes part in a very select exercise program for which she never dreamed she'd qualify. The program is called cardiac rehab and takes place in nearly every hospital in the area. To qualify, one must have had a heart attack, bypass surgery, angioplasty, stable angina, valve replacement or heart transplant.

Cardiac rehabilitation has a proven track record. Yet despite its success, just 30 percent of qualified cardiac survivors participate in it.

Studies show that patients who participate do show marked improvement in cardiac health, "almost as if the heart attack had never happened," reported the Mayo Clinic's Dr. Veronique Roger in a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

While Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights has better than average patient participation because of cardiologists' support, Diane Colville, manager of cardio-pulmonary health and rehabilitation, says motivating patients to attend is always a challenge.

"In cardiac rehab, one of the most challenging issues is working with patients not ready to make changes in their lives," Colville said. "But when patients are ready, they are likely to lose weight, 95 percent make a considerable increase in exercise endurance and tolerance, quit smoking and have better blood pressure management."

Women are the least likely to participate, citing transportation issues or simply because they are not accustomed to making their own health care a priority or think they can do it on their own. One study published in 2002 in an issue of General Hospital Psychiatry found that women hospitalized for a heart attack or unstable angina are far less likely than men to be referred to cardiac rehabilitation programs. And when women are referred, they are less likely to complete the programs.

"About 80 percent of participants in rehab are male, just 20 percent are women, even though heart disease is the number one killer of women," said David J. Zanghi, a certified strength and conditioning specialist from Adventist Hinsdale Hospital's preventative cardiology and rehabilitation department.

"Women are used to taking care of others and may think they can do this on their own, but the research has shown that they can't. People who participate in cardiac rehab get back to normal activities quicker, have better quality of life, have a decreased risk of death and experience cognitive improvements. Plus their depression scores are lower and a lot of that is due to the social interaction with other patients. They get to see that they're not alone."

Franz figured she had absolutely nothing to lose, except some unhealthy habits and a few pounds. She had already heard all the statistics: More than 13 million Americans have survived a heart attack or have been diagnosed with coronary heart disease, the number one cause of death in the United States. Medications and lifestyle changes - namely a healthy diet and exercise - are known to reduce the risk for further cardiac events.

"I felt that my heart attack gave me a second chance. It made me very aware of my own mortality and made me take a good hard look and say to myself, 'This is what I have, now how am I going to deal with it,' " recalled Franz.

Always healthy and energetic, Franz had no cardiac symptoms, save for feeling dizzy, sweating profusely and just not feeling right one night. There was no chest pain, and she did not have high cholesterol. An emergency trip to the ER resulted in three stent procedures.

Phase I rehab begins in the hospital for cardiac patients. Once discharged, patients enroll in phase II, involving educational sessions on the benefits of improved diet and lifestyle changes. Franz took part in that phase for 12 weeks. Today, three days a week, she heads to the Northwest Community Hospital Health and Fitness Center's cardiac rehab floor, where she continues to enjoy camaraderie and support from other cardiac survivors in the phase III or maintenance program.

"When you've had a heart attack, you must give up one way of life for another," Franz explained. "This isn't something you've chosen. It's not a welcomed change."

But change she did; losing 30 pounds and finding a common bond and unstinting support from other cardiac patients. She's seen how people enter the program feeling vulnerable and uncertain of their health and leave with a renewed sense of confidence and strength.

"If it were left up for me alone, I would find a thousand other things to do, and I wouldn't be there exercising," Franz admitted. "But the staff and people in the program are there for one another and help bring about positive changes that keep everyone coming back."

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