By Paige Bierma
Like everyone else who has open-heart surgery, Sharon Earp sports a scar that cuts across her chest from her sternum to just below the clavicle. But unlike many other heart surgery patients, Earp doesn't wear turtlenecks to hide the scars. Instead, the 45-year-old administrative assistant dons t-shirts and v-necks, which invites strangers to ask her about the surgery that saved her life seven years ago.
"I don't try to hide the scar today," says Earp, a Texas native who had her heart attack at age 38. "I've had some wonderful conversations with people just walking down the street, people who just stopped me and asked me about my scar and the surgery."
Those conversations, and the cardiac surgery support group Mended Hearts, have helped Earp recover more quickly. "A lot of people are really afraid that their life is over after heart surgery," says Earp, who publishes the newsletter for the Mended Hearts support group in Fort Worth, Texas. "They're afraid to exert themselves, afraid to do anything really," and we have to persuade them that they can and will resume their normal lives, she adds.
Of course diet and exercise programs prescribed to recovering heart patients are key to recovery, but many people don't realize how important support from friends and family are after heart surgery. Research on groups like Mended Hearts has shown that such support helps patients recover more completely and more quickly, especially in cases where the patient lives alone or doesn't have a strong support network. One study of nearly 200 heart attack survivors found that people with close confidants were about three times more likely to survive the six months following surgery than those without support.
How Mended Hearts began
Affiliated with the American Heart Association, Mended Hearts is a national support group for people recovering from heart surgery or suffering from chronic heart problems. The organization was founded in 1951 in Boston by four post-operative heart patients who met each other strolling a hospital corridor shortly after having surgery. The four new friends found their conversations so therapeutic and enlivening that they decided to form a support group to share fears, concerns and strategies for recovering smoothly.
Today, the group has some 260 chapters in cities throughout the United States and Canada. In addition to monthly support meetings (which usually feature an expert speaker), members of Mended Hearts also volunteer to visit patients who are about to undergo or have just had heart surgery.
Ralph Aron, president of Mended Hearts chapter in San Francisco for the past 15 years, says depression, anger, and fear are common feelings among heart surgery patients. "We try to help people realize that these are perfectly normal reactions, and that you can handle it and that you will get over it," says Aron, who had an aortic heart valve replaced in 1962. Volunteers like Aron often visit patients in the hospital before they go in for heart surgery, offering to answer any questions the patients might have. After surgery, members check up on those in recovery and offer encouragement and tips from their own experiences.
Sharon Earp, for example, offers the following tip for opening a refrigerator after open-heart surgery. "You can't do it one-handed like you used to because your chest has been cut in two," Earp says. "You need to hold the door with both hands waist high, and then walk backwards slowly." Also, if you're home alone all day during recovery, she says, it might be a good idea for a member of your family or friend to put some sandwiches and drinks in a cooler by your bed, so you don't have to go to the kitchen at all.
Richard Weinnand, a retired police officer from San Francisco, joined Mended Hearts after having quadruple bypass surgery in late 2000. Mended Hearts helped alleviate a lot of Weinnand's fears about the surgery. "No matter how much anyone else talks to you about 'Oh, you'll be fine. Everything will be great,' they don't really know because they've never been through it," Weinnand says. "Doctors might tell you the technical part of it, but you don't know the actual feeling of it, or how life is going to be afterward unless you can talk to someone who has been through it before."
"You go through a short period of depression when you first get out of the hospital, wondering if you'll ever be normal again, and be able to resume your normal activities," says Weinnand, who suffered angina attacks for years before having the operation. Just five months after surgery, the 74-year-old says he feels better than he has in years. "If I'd known I'd feel this much better, I probably would have wanted to have the surgery sooner," he says.
Weinnand has begun volunteering for Mended Hearts, visiting patients in hospitals to help alleviate others' fears and anxieties. That in itself is strong medicine, according to Weinnand. "I always thought being able to help another person is the greatest feeling," he says. "A lot of people might not believe it, but that's the way I felt as a police officer too."
Sharon Earp also believes the volunteer work she does with Mended Hearts helps keep her healthy and makes it easier to maintain a positive attitude about her heart condition. And in case showing off the scar on her neck doesn't open up enough conversations, Earp has one more trick for broaching the subject of heart surgery with those who otherwise might be afraid to ask. The two artificial heart valves she had replaced eight years ago make a ticking sound that those around her can hear.
"People will look at me, then they'll look at their watches, and sneak a glance back at me," Earp says gaily. "I tell them, 'It's not your watch; it's my heart.' "
The Mended Hearts Inc. http://www.mendedhearts.org 7272 Greenville Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75231-4596. 888-432-7899 or 214-360-6149. Fax: 214-360-6145. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org The American Heart Association can be reached at the same mailing address and telephone numbers. Its website at www.americanheart.org contains even more information about heart attacks, strokes, and various heart conditions and treatments.
Frasure-Smith N et al. Social support, depression, and mortality during the first year after myocardial infarction. Circulation. April 25, 2000. 101:1919-1924.
Rozanski A et al. Impact of Psychological factors on the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease and the implications for therapy. Circulation. April 27, 1999. 99:2192-2217.
American Psychological Association. Research to the heart of the matter. Monitor on Psychology. January 2001. Volume 32(1).
Interviews with Mended Heart members Sharon Earp, Richard Weinnand, and Ralph Aron.