Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Volunteers help shoulder the burden of broken hearts

It was 10 o’clock on an April night. The 9 p.m. news had just finished, and Andrew Aldrich’s face felt funny. 

He looked at himself straight-on in the bathroom mirror and started talking to himself. Aldrich was stumbling, his mouth and tongue not forming the words the way his brain was telling them to. His wife, Patricia, came to the bathroom door and asked him who he was talking to. He told her, the words like mush in his mouth and the dread like ice on his back, that it was time to go to the hospital. 

At Porter Adventist Hospital, just a short distance from his home, doctors told Aldrich he’d suffered a stroke. Four weeks later, he underwent aortic valve replacement.

The Mended Hearts logo
Courtesy of Mended Hearts
When he was in the hospital, he was visited by a volunteer for Mended Hearts, an organization that aims to soothe cardiac patients by pairing them with others who have recovered from heart procedures or events. The volunteer brought him a little muslin pillow with a heart on it — which he hugged to the scar on his chest when he needed to cough, or put in between the seat belt and his chest, to ease his discomfort throughout his recovery. They also told him everything would be OK and that life went on after heart surgery. That’s just what he needed to hear.

After he went home, Mended Hearts kept in touch. They sent him brochures about their program and about the Denver club, which acts as both a volunteer group and a support group. About two years after his stroke, he began volunteering. Now, he’s the president of the Denver chapter of Mended Hearts, and he’s the one visiting Porter Adventist, handing out pillows and telling cardiac patients and their families the five words they need to hear most:

“It’s going to be alright.”

The Denver club has about a dozen regular volunteers, all former heart surgery patients, who now visit six area hospitals: Porter Adventist Hospital, Saint Joseph Hospital, Medical Center of Aurora, Swedish Medical Center, University of Colorado Medical Center and Lutheran Medical Center. 

There’s no one better for heart patients to hear it from than someone who’s been there, Aldrich said. And he’s been the one on the operating table and in the waiting room. His wife, Patricia, who made the harrowing drive to the hospital when he had his stroke, had the same aortic procedure done two years earlier, while Aldrich waited anxiously for updates. 

Both Patricia and Aldrich’s parents had heart trouble, so they chose to live healthy lifestyles. They were active. They ate well. Neither one of them smoked. Patricia’s valve problem was strictly genetic. Aldrich’s was a mystery — he had no blockages, no known damage — until the stroke.

Non-modifiable risk factors such as age, sex, genetics, race or ethnicity are risk factors we cannot change. These are also risk factors that determine only about 30 percent of our overall health.

However, modifiable risk factors such as individual behaviors, our physical environment, our social surroundings and our access to healthcare determine 70 percent of our health.

Poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and diabetes are some of the leading risk factors for cardiac problems.

For most suffering from cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) which is the no. 1 killer in Colorado, it's these modifiable risk factors that public health focuses on helping people to change.

When Aldrich visits hospitals, he too focuses on something people can do to help prevent heart disease, he gives them the piece of advice that helped him the most during his recovery. 

Walk every day.

“The best thing you can do is walk,” Aldrich said.

But just like walking is a necessary part of the recovery process, he also recommends napping.

“Naps are good,” he said with a smile.

When he came home from the hospital, he didn’t have much energy, and he was fighting the lasting effects of the anesthesia. So after every walk he convinced himself to take, he rewarded himself with a nap.

“After a while, the walks got longer and the naps got shorter,” Aldrich said.

Now, both he and Patricia, both seniors, try to stay as active as they can. Aldrich visits Porter Adventist once a week, where he makes his rounds to meet with patients and their families. He gives them pillows, which he said patients say they love. He’s never surprised to hear that — he and his wife still both have theirs. He often refers to the pillow as teddy bears, because they are comforting and constant at a terrifying time. Aldrich’s pillow is still in the living room of his home.

But all the comfort in the world wouldn’t be enough for the cardiac patients without the doctors and nurses at the hospitals, he said. A major focus of Mended Hearts is stressing to patients to listen to their doctors, because the advice they give about recovery, lifestyle changes and more is paramount to staying alive. The Mended Hearts volunteers don’t give medical advice — they just share their experiences and act as shoulders to help carry the burden of broken hearts. 

Aldrich’s eyes cloud up when he talks about the marvels of medical advancements — there’s a surgeon at Porter doing bypass on a live heart now, he said, blinking a single tear from a blue eye. 

There’s also a surgeon at Porter who stops to shake Aldrich’s hand every time he sees him. He wants to thank the volunteer for the important work he does for his patients. 

Instead, Aldrich thanks him. He calls the surgeon a magician. 

They both change lives.


Mended Hearts

To learn more about Mended Hearts, including how to get involved, go to mendedhearts.org.

Tips for healthy hearts

To learn more about how to keep your heart healthy, go to jeffco.us/public-health or click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment