Before Piper went in for surgery — and after — she was visited by volunteers from a group called Mended Hearts. Their message: They knew what she was going through, had been through it themselves and were living proof things would be okay.
“It lowered my anxiety,” said Piper, 61. “I thought, when I’m able, I’m going to give back.”
This past January — a year after her transplant, when doctors said she no longer need fear infection — Piper started volunteering with Mended Hearts Chapter 200. On Thursday, she and other volunteers will celebrate the chapter’s 30th anniversary at Inova’s Heart and Vascular Institute.
Nearly every day, volunteers are visiting patients there, at Inova’s hospital in Alexandria, at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington and at the VA hospital in the District. They speak with family members and caregivers, too.
“After you’ve had heart surgery, your anxiety is kind of high. At least mine was,” said Michael Kolansky, a retired chemical engineer from Centreville, Va., who is the chapter’s president.
Michael had a heart attack on a Saturday night in 2011, a few days after he turned 62. His family was gathering for his birthday celebration when Michael started experiencing classic symptoms — severe chest pain, a cold sweat — while watching TV.
“I came down and said to my wife, ‘I don’t think I’m having a party today.’ ”
What Michael had, five days later, was quadruple bypass surgery. He, too, was visited by Mended Heart volunteers. They brought with them a heart-shaped pillow. It’s more than a cheery bit of decoration. When your sternum’s been cracked open like a lobster tail then stapled back together, you need something to hug tightly to your chest when you feel a cough coming on.
Last year, volunteers from Chapter 200 provided more than 1,300 therapeutic heart-shaped pillows during 3,400 visits to heart-surgery patients.
“They get out of surgery and think, ‘Thank goodness, I’m alive.’ But now they’re dealing with a major external wound that is very limiting to their daily activity,” said Heather Russell, vice president of the Inova heart institute.
The elation over surviving can be tempered with anxiety and depression, something cardiologists and nurses aren’t always well equipped to treat.
“It’s really about establishing a peer-to-peer relationship,” Heather said of volunteers such as Michael and Piper.
I was visited by volunteers from Mended Hearts in 2001 after a heart attack led to cardiac catheterization and angioplasty to open a clogged artery and insert a stent. I spent four days in intensive care before being discharged.
It’s doubtful I’d spend even a day in the hospital these days, so improved is medical technology and methods. And a lot of times, what once required opening the sternum can now be handled by snaking a catheter up a blood vessel.
“We’ve gotten so good that most patients that would have gone to cabbage even five years ago don’t need to go for open-heart surgery anymore,” Heather said.
“CABG,” Heather explained. “Coronary artery bypass grafting.”
Ah. That’s the ticket to the “zipper club.”
Piper and her husband were living in Falls Church, Va., when she received her transplant. They’ve since relocated to Shepherdstown, W.Va. In the months after the surgery, she started noticing that an odd feeling had come over her.
“Oh my God, this is what it feels like to have energy,” she said. “This is what it feels like to feel normal.”
Piper doesn’t know whose heart she has, only that it came from a woman.
“Every day I say a thank-you to my donor,” she said. “Because without her, I wouldn’t be here. But I feel we’re a team. It’s been given to me, but it’s not mine.”
Somebody to love
“The opposite of being seemingly nobody is being Somebody,” she wrote. “I am Somebody. As in, ‘Somebody needs to take out the trash,’ or ‘Somebody needs to get the phone,’ or ‘Somebody should put the recycling in the bin.’
“I’ll trade you a bit of Nobody for a bit of Somebody.”