Broken Hearts

On their first visit, most folks find a spot in the crowded parking lot down the hill and then lumber their way up to the entrance, breathing hard.  Others, who might be more familiar with the campus, use the free valet service located at the front door.  Those who seem less able are dropped off by a friend or relative. No matter, they all hesitantly enter the building and nervously stand in front of the elevator bank on their way to cardio rehab on the second floor.  Worry is etched deeply into their facial expressions.  They are unsure of themselves, and unsure of their future.   And all have a significant malady in common: their hearts are broken, and they’re scared to death.    

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing over 375,000 Americans annually. For people who’ve had heart failure, heart surgery, or a heart transplant, long-term studies clearly indicate that patients who participate in a cardiac rehab program recover more quickly and more fully; they significantly improve their fitness levels; and they dramatically reduce their cardiac risk factors.

However, not all cardiac rehab programs are alike, and one in particular—the Cardiac Rehab Program at Putnam Hospital Center—is considered “the jewel in the crown” in the Hudson Valley.  Cathy Ahearn is the long-time coordinator of this program and, along with her assistant, Liz, is credited with saving hundreds of patients’ lives over a nursing career spanning more than 30 years.   

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Widely known for her professionalism and compassion, patients who’ve been with Cathy, and depend on her year after year to stay alive, tell stories of how carefully she listens, how closely she follows-up, and how much she truly cares. 

In a gym-like setting, heart patients use exercise machines and free weights to go through a carefully selected sequence of cardio and strength-building exercises.  Using cutting-edge technology, patients are closely monitored and stress tested. Their heart rate, heart rhythm, respiratory rate, blood-oxygen levels, and blood pressure are continually assessed, informing their exercise regimen. Most patients complete their cardiac rehab program in about four months, but some stay on for years. The length of the program varies according to medical condition and insurance coverage.    

Cathy provides critical advice to patients and, in her understated way, pushes them to develop better healthcare habits so they can lead healthy fulfilling lives. With an easy laugh and apple-pie charm, she encourages participants to make dietary changes and exercise regularly; discusses techniques for reducing stress; and demands that her patients maximize their rest, eat regularly, and dutifully adhere to their medication schedule.  Cathy believes that patients have been given a second chance to make lifestyle choices that are critical to their full recovery. 

Cathy and Liz are not just competent and kind; they are also extraordinarily persuasive. They educate, guide and support in such a low-key manner that patients find themselves enjoying a healthier lifestyle without having to be hit over the head with a hammer.   “Smile!” is one of her most frequent refrains. “Put a smile on your face, and get those endorphins working.”

For patients recuperating from cardiac surgery, regaining emotional strength is almost a tougher challenge than recovering physically.  Cardiac rehabilitation programs usually focus attention on rebuilding weakened muscles after surgery, not necessarily attending to the post-traumatic stress and depression that debilitates so many. However, under Cathy’s leadership, the Cardiac Rehab Program at Putnam also becomes a community of people enjoying each other’s company two or three mornings each week, and cheering each other on. Mental fatigue and the overwhelming sadness that strikes so many heart patients are openly acknowledged. And, if requested, a list of mental health practitioners experienced in dealing with post-operative cardiac depression is willingly provided and heartily encouraged.  

Mended Hearts is another fine program operating under Cathy’s sustaining leadership. This peer-to-peer support group, consisting of heart disease patients, their families and caregivers, meets twice monthly to inspire hope and improve the quality of life for all involved.  Members listen to each other, share their experiences and volunteer to talk to other heart patients about what they may face, including: recovery, treatment, lifestyle changes, and possible depression. 

Cathy Ahearn, through her hard work and dedication, has had a profound and lasting influence on innumerable lives. When she says, “I love this job!” it’s crystal clear how much she really means it.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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