Learning to Trust My Heart Again

Photo: lacey wroblewski

I 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.

See our After A Heart Attack Series:

Part One: After a Heart Attack: What Happens Now? 

Part Two: Up and At 'Em!  The many benefits of cardiac rehab

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