This year 250 people underwent open heart surgery at the Washington Hospital Center. They relinquished their heartbeats into the hands of the hospital's surgical team. They entrusted their doubts and fears to Mended Hearts.
Mended Hearts of the National Capital Area is an organization of former heart surgery patients who offer pre- and post-operative counseling to heart patients in six of the city's hospitals.Their organization is the second largest self-help group in the country, right behind Alcoholics Anonymous, and the only counseling service of its kind in the Washington area.
The Washington chapter, founded 15 months ago by martha Severt, a Bethesda resident who underwent heart surgery for a congenital defect, now boasts 203 members of all ages.
"We do not discuss our own surgery," said Severt, quickly dispelling any impression of a group of people comparing surgical scars. "We never talk people into or out of heart surgery. We just try to encourage them and stay on a personal level," she explained.
"We try most of all, to listen and be a friend."
Friends at mended Hearts may be 6 years old or in their 70s. Hospital visitations are encouraged, and members readily complete the three'course visitation training. Guidelines for the propram are set by the national office in Boston.
"Very oftern a patient will open up questions and fears to us that might sound silly to a doctor," Severt revealed. "You'd be suprised by what they ask--'When will i be able to walk? 'How much is it going to hurt? 'When can I have sex?"
Mended Hearts,said Severt,has worked with 225 Washington Hospital Center heart patients since january, making 270 pre-operative visits and 650 post'operative visits. The center, which handles the largest volume of heart care patients inthe metropolitan area, will perform 500 open heart surgeries this year.
Visits at Georgetown. George Washington, Washington Adventist, U.S. Naval Hospital-Bethesda, and Veterans Hospitals presently total 610 pre-operative and 1,324 post-operative visits to 195 patients.
In the beginning, Dr. Jorge Garcia, chief cardio-vascular surgeon at the Hospital Center, said he was not an MH believer. However, their function has proved to be so vital to the pre-and post'operative care of patients he now considers them members of his surgical team.
"I've had a lot of people sending for Mended Heart people." said the 36-year-old surgeon. "They find out through them what it's like, what to expect (and) they achieve a peace of mind by talking to them. This makes the job easy for us.
"Most people about to undergo heart surgery, any surgery, are scared," and Garcia. "Even doctors undergoing heart surgery are scared. No amount of reasurrances by the physician will take away these fears.
"If a patient is well informed, they'll have an excellent attitude about surgery. The better the attitude, the quicker they get out. So all the members of my team will introduce themselves to a patient before surgery. We consider the Mended hearts people part of our team."
Joan Boyken, head nurse of the center's cardiac unit, agrees with Garcia.
"They approack the patients before surgery andthhe patients tell us later--'It's so reassuring to see them. Ifeel like I'm almost dead. Then to see someone like them, so alive, is reassuring."
The patients Mended Hearts people visit generally fall into four categories: patients wit congenital heart defects,valve damage, aneurysms (localized ballooning of the arterial walls, a condition requiring immediate surgery) and bypass patients.
Until a few years ago, bypass surgery was still in the developmental stages and was not practiced by area hospitals. The process involves removing veins from a patient's legs and using them to reroute blood past blocked arteries in the heart. The new veins then pump blood to areas of the heart and brain formerly starved by the blocked vessels. Yet it is considered elective surgery, and some people choose to live limited lives on medication. UNtil five years ago when he had a bypass operation, Fleetwood Jones was one of those people.
"Before my surgery I was literally just surviving on a day to day basis," he recalled. "I was just popping nitro (nitro-glycerin pills to relieve pain).
"now I'm off medications. I'm fully active. I worked in the garden 3 1/2 hours this morning. And I'm going sailing at 6."
Jones, a vibrant, tanned, 52-year-old former analyst for the nationa Security Agency, said he decided to have the surgery because he didn't want to live a limited life. So he went to the Cleveland Clinic, had the surgery, and returned to his Maryland home a changed man.
"I was a corornary cripple before I had it. Now I've got a new reprieve on life."
To prove it, Jones spends what would have once been an exhaustive schedule visiting coronary patients. Arriving at the Washington Hospital Center, where he is the MH coordinator, he collects his case assignments from Garcia's office, stalks the corridors, runs up and down stairs along the cardiac unit, spends three hours visiting patients and greets nearly every nurse in sight.
"When we have a problem with a patient, I recommend Mr. Fleetwood real fast," said Betty Mckall, a nursing assistant in the heart care unit.
"We had a patient who wouldn't get out of bed. She had a lot of fear. I told Mr. Fleetwood to go down there. He said he would get her up, and he did."
Jones grinned sheepishly.
On the fourth floor of the hospital tower is the intensive care unit. Jones has spent some time there talking t patients. He also has personally lived through what he calls its"science fiction aura."
The center's unit is a carpeted, dusky, blue room presided over by a team monitoring patients from a semicircular, platform resembing a Star Trek control center. Behind glass-windowed partitions are the patients. Some are shock trauma (auto accidents, fire, etc.) cases. Others are heart patients. They're swatched in bandages and confined by yards of tubing and wires hooked up to sundry equipment. Their immobile, speechless forms look more like machines than bodies.
Beth Frankel, one of MH's newest members, was three years old when she had surgery for a congenital heart defect. The 22-year-old George Washington University student said the experience ultimately made her fearful of doctors, because no one informed her oh her condition. According to Frakel, it just wasn't policy 19 years ago for doctors to explain complicated heart surgery to pediatric patients. Now it is.
"i want to work with kid, helping them to acclimate themselves back into normal activity," she said. "I never had any physical limitations, but there are some children who do and they can't understand that. I want to help them understand."
Also working with children is six-year-old Carla Arrington.
"She just started at a new day care center, and I got a note from the teacher the first day saying she'd showed them her scar and was real proud of it," said her mother, Pat Arrington. "She gained a great deal of prestige."
The youngster also has gained prestige with adults who marvel at her optimism following her surgery a year ago. SHe'll face additional surgery later on.
"It takes a parent and a child who have been through it to be of any consolation to another parent and child," said Arrington, explaining why they visit. "She (Carla) likes talking to children. She just goes right in and starts talking to them."
"I say 'Hi, and I tell them not to be afraid," said Carla. "I want them to be happy."