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Hearts in the Right Place

Burt Oranburg, who still looks like the Syracuse University linebacker he was -- despite five bypasses and a synthetic artery -- spends two or three days a week as a volunteer in the amputee ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He joins in the exercise programs of military men and women who lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan, steadies some as they walk, and helps lift others who need help moving around. Burt's 82.

My Walk Back

When I started outpatient rehabilitation, after a slow recovery from my surgeries, I thought a 10-minute walk was a pretty fair hike. I believe my cardiologist, Thomas Goldbaum, suspected I was on my way to being what I've heard called a cardiac cripple.

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)

_____More From The Post_____
How to Rehab a Broken Heart
_____Aging Well_____
Planning to the Last Detail: Here's How (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
Age Lines (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
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QUICK STUDY : A weekly digest of new research on major health topics (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
A Weekly Shot of News and Notes (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
How Can You Rehab a Broken Heart? Exercise, Diet, Stress Reduction (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
Hold the Nitro? (The Washington Post, Mar 29, 2005)
THIS WEEK IN HEALTH (The Washington Post, Mar 29, 2005)
More Heart News

"Get to work," he scolded.

Many beginners, Press says, are resistant, grouchy, depressed or in denial ("I've had surgery. What do I need this for?"). I was plain scared. On my first day the cross-trainer looked about as inviting as an electric chair. What if my bypasses and aorta patch wouldn't tolerate the exertion?

Osment laid out a slow program: a few minutes on each of two stationary bikes (one works your arms as well as your legs), a modest stroll on the treadmill, a bit of arm strengthening. I should hold my pulse rate to about 105 beats per minute, or 40 beats above my resting level.

She hung a small telemetry device around my neck and told me where to attach its five electrodes. As I began, hesitantly, to work out, the device sent a constant report on my heart rhythm to a monitor at the nurse station.

"We don't want you to be killing yourself," Katie said. "But we do want you to do as much as you can." And remember, she added, "exercise is all about lifestyle change. It's not for just 36 sessions. You need to do it forever."

Forever: To a cardiac victim, can there be a lovelier word?

Lifestyle change, as I've learned, involves other factors, too -- reducing fat and salt in my diet, of course, and avoiding stress. So I signed up for the cardiac center's free 10-session course in stress management. The counselor, Marlys Rixey, suggested simple ways to avoid anger, like counting to 10 before responding to a confrontation and avoiding hostile-sounding speech.

Example: Instead of saying, "You're wrong," say, "I believe you may be mistaken."

Best of all for me, she bade the class practice slow, deep breathing to relax, while she spoke in a soothing voice and played soft music. That regimen put me right to sleep in her class. I now use it all the time.

After a few exercise sessions, the staff gradually increased the intensity of my workouts. I began to actually pop a sweat. The telemetry device was replaced by a small pulse monitor to wear on my chest, with a readout on my wrist. And three times during each session I got an instant EKG printout from a defibrillator, plus three blood pressure checks.

Came, at last, my 36th session. Katie replaced the Glenn Miller disk with Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance." While its noble cadences filled the room, the staff pronounced me a graduate and presented me with a certificate. My buddies applauded. Cornball? You bet? Did I love it? You bet.

And, like my fellow clubbers, I'm still here.•

Mike Edwards was an editor and writer for National Geographic magazine for 34 years.

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