had a heart attack while on a trip to see my family in
Chicago. What started as a four-day weekend turned
into a 22-day ordeal in a city far from home. At
43, I had none of the typical risk factors for a heart
attack, and I ate right and exercised, but I also had an
undiagnosed congenital heart defect — I did not have
a right coronary artery. Don’t ask me how I lived that
long without one.
A few weeks after surgery to give me a new coronary
artery, I was to begin cardiac rehab in my hometown of
Portland. I was scared. No. I was terrified to do anything
that would stress my heart. It had betrayed me once, and
I did not trust that it wouldn’t do it again. I was deeply
shaken by the whole experience.
Of course, I was grateful to have survived, to have
received such excellent life-saving care, to have a second
chance. I was overwhelmed by the love of family and
friends, and how they cared for my family while I was
recovering. But what if it happens again? What if the
surgery didn’t work? I felt very fragile. I needed to learn
to trust my heart all over again ... that I could work it
hard, that I could listen to my body and trust the healing
that was happening.
I started cardiac rehab about six weeks after my
surgery; but after a few weeks, I had to stop because my
recovery was not progressing as it should. My cardiologist
did more tests, and I started new medications. I started
another round of cardiac rehab and went for three months.
Cardiac rehab made a tremendous difference in both
my physiology and my psychology. First of all, the staff
understood all my emotions. I’m sure many, if not most,
people are in some state of shock, cautious and wary,
when they begin, but the staff gently encouraged me
and helped me understand that strengthening the heart
muscle was the best thing I could do.
Those sessions helped me so much. I learned how to
exercise and strengthen my heart — how long, how fast,
how much. I was monitored and guided through cardio
exercise on the treadmill and stationary bike and strength
training with light weights.
But the benefits went far beyond the basics of
physical recovery. The staff created a fun, supportive
and caring environment where I could talk about my
experience, my fears and process — everything I had
been through. They supported my early weeks of getting
back to life and celebrated my small victories.
One of the biggest benefits for me was the role it
played in helping me process the emotions that I was
experiencing after my heart event. I had always been
physically active and eaten healthy, so establishing
those habits wasn’t as unfamiliar to me. They did
offer education about nutrition and support for making
exercise a priority. Those were not the biggest stumbling
blocks I faced in recovery, however. Most important,
cardiac rehab taught me how to trust my heart again.
Cardiac rehab made me more comfortable with the
idea of committing to a new, health-focused lifestyle.
It was a fresh start for a new chapter of life. It was
invaluable to me.
I had never heard about cardiac rehab before my heart
experience, but the physical and emotional support was
critical to my recovery. I would encourage anyone to pursue
and commit to cardiac rehab after a heart event.
Learning To Trust
My Heart Again
By Julie O’Leary
Photo: Lacey Wroblewski; laceywphotography.com