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Hearts in the Right Place

Cardiac Rehab Revives Bad Pumps -- and Builds a Social Club for Those on the Mend

By Mike Edwards
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page HE01

"You're in the penalty box," Pat Osment says. "Just sit awhile."

This isn't hockey. I'm in an exercise room at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. After heart surgery, I began working out here three mornings a week to revivify my heart -- and, not incidentally, convince myself that I can live an active life again.

At top, members of Suburban Hospital's cardiac rehab program go through their paces on treadmills and recumbent bikes. Such programs have been shown to extend lives -- and build friendships. (Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)

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QUICK STUDY : A weekly digest of new research on major health topics (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
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Pat, a cardiac nurse, has just checked my blood pressure, part of the start-up routine. For some reason it's in the hypertension range this morning, 150/90. Too high for me to start pumping on a cross-trainer.

Glumly, I watch my pals Hal, David and Lillian (we're all on a first-name basis here) finish their warm-ups -- leg and arm stretches and easy swinging movements -- and head for the machines. Katie Biskey, an exercise physiologist, pops a disk into the CD player and Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman swing into the room, saxophones and clarinets blending with the whirr of stationary bikes and the thump-thump of feet on treadmills. A trumpet wails a solo and Hal calls out confidently, "That's Harry James playing." Others nod, for most of us grew up with swing.

Pat rechecks my blood pressure. Now it's 130/80.

"Okay," she says, and I start warming up for my 40 minutes of aerobic exercise. I'll have more blood pressure checks as well as EKG readouts before the session ends. Meanwhile, I track my heartbeat via a watch-like device on my wrist; it picks up signals from a small monitor on my chest.

For me, as for many others, exercise is boring. But it has a different feel in the cardiac center at Suburban. It's not my gym, it's my club. My cardiac club.

One reason it's different: no sense of competition. The guy on the next treadmill isn't likely to humiliate me by pounding the tread at 6 mph while I putz along at 3. We all groan about our knees on the exercise bikes and dread the cross-trainer.

But we keep at it, and we boost each other's resolve by doing so. After all, we're in the same lifeboat. We've all experienced dolorous affairs of the heart -- infarction, angina, rampaging blood pressure, bypass surgery, stents, you name it -- or have been judged at high risk for the same. As for me, I received five bypasses last July, and three days later a second hurry-up surgery to patch my failing aorta with Dacron. That second episode was a tough one; when it was over, I was wheeled off to the intensive care unit to spend 11 days strapped down and sedated. I had always been active, but I came out of that experience barely able to walk, and not much wanting to. I was only 72, and wondered if I'd see another birthday.

The Cardiac Club

Outpatient rehab programs such as Suburban's aren't new. Washington area hospitals have been offering them since the 1970s, often accompanied by lifestyle counseling: how to handle stress, break the tobacco habit and avoid such poisons (one cardiologist's term) as French fries. Although cardiovascular disease accounts for 43 percent of all U.S. deaths, one survey suggests that only about 30 percent of eligible patients have participated in any type of rehabilitation.

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