“It was shocking,” the La Quinta resident admits. “Over a three-week period, I’d started having some chest pain I thought was indigestion — once, when I was on a hike in Sun Valley; another time on a five-mile walk in San Diego. I’d take some antacids, and it would go away.
“Then, one morning the pain was going from one shoulder to the other, and from my sternum to my throat,” she continues. “And I had a sharp pain that went down my arm. I wondered if I was having a heart attack since there was no reason for me to have indigestion.
“So, I took an aspirin and asked my husband to drive me to Urgent Care,” she says. “The pain started getting stronger in the car, and I suggested he step on it. They took me in right away, did an EKG and called 9-1-1. Then I knew I was having a heart attack.” Young was rushed by ambulance to Eisenhower’s cardiac catheterization lab. There, an interventional cardiologist performed what’s called a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), threading a catheter through a blood vessel in her wrist to her heart.
“They found one artery that was 90 percent blocked,” she relates, so a balloon angioplasty was performed to widen the obstructed artery, and a stent placed to help keep it open. Another, smaller artery was also narrowed, so the interventional cardiologist did an angioplasty on that as well.
“They kept me overnight and I went home the next morning,” Young says. “It was weird…you realize you’ve had something pretty major happen, but you just have a little puncture wound in your wrist. It blew my mind.”
Ten days later, she and her husband went on a previously scheduled 25-day trip to Africa. “My doctors said that as long as I stayed on my medications, I could go,” she says. “But I have to admit, one night in Botswana I was lying there, wondering, ‘What was I thinking? I’m in the middle of nowhere!’”
When she returned to the desert, Young enrolled in the Tamkin Cardiac Wellness Program (cardiac rehabilitation) at the Eisenhower Renker Wellness Center. Cardiac rehabilitation is a customized 24- to 36-session outpatient program of medically supervised exercise and weekly education classes. It’s open to anyone who’s had a heart attack, a cardiac procedure such as PCI and stent placement, bypass or heart valve surgery, cardiac transplant, or who has congestive heart failure or stable angina. It’s designed to help participants improve their health and recover from a heart attack, other forms of heart disease, or surgery to treat heart disease.
It also helps patients get back to “normal.”
“After a cardiac event, many patients are fearful,” says Lisa Berg, BA, RN, Staff Nurse IV, Eisenhower Cardiac Rehabilitation Program. “It’s often their first experience facing their own mortality, and it’s reassuring to have someone keep an eye on you while being encouraged to resume a normal life.”
“I go three times a week to exercise,” Young says. “I started out light, working on the elliptical, treadmill and arm machine. “The nurses are amazing. They monitor your heart while you’re working out, and it really is reassuring to know how far to push yourself and not feel vulnerable.”
Young also attends the weekly education classes which cover a range of risk-reduction topics including nutrition, medication management, stress management, travel, even managing the feelings that come with a heart disease diagnosis.
Importantly, cardiac rehabilitation works. “Many studies have shown the efficacy of cardiac rehabilitation, including reducing the risk of cardiac death and a lower risk of hospital readmission,” says Board Certified Cardiologist Eric Sontz, MD, Medical Director, Eisenhower Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.
“It’s also been shown to reduce symptoms like chest pain, improve adherence with taking preventive medications, and improve health factors like cholesterol levels and blood pressure,” says Berg. “Plus, whether they’ve had a heart attack or surgery, participants get better faster and return to their regular lifestyle much quicker.”
“Certainly women benefit as much as men, and maybe even more — given their surprise sometimes at having heart disease,” adds Dr. Sontz.
“And most women, like Cathy, are surprised,” Berg affirms. “Many think breast cancer is the number-one killer of women, but it is heart disease. In fact, heart disease kills nearly six times as many women as breast cancer.”
“I always worried so much about breast cancer,” Young admits. “But given my family history — my father had more than one heart attack — I should have been more aware I was at greater risk of heart disease.”
Being postmenopausal is another risk factor.
“Women definitely need to understand their risk factors, especially if, like Cathy, they don’t look like the ‘typical’ heart attack candidate,” Berg says.
“They also need to be aware that their heart attack symptoms are often different from the usual elephant-on-the-chest and pain down the left arm that most men experience,” she says. “Women have more neck, jaw, back and upper abdominal discomfort.
“We make sure our female participants know this, so if they experience symptoms again, they seek medical attention right away,” adds Berg. Young has learned a great deal from her experience.
“I’m much more careful about what I eat, I exercise consistently, and I take the guidelines about reducing risk much more seriously,” she says. “I’ve also talked to my sisters about getting checked out.
“While I didn’t think I fit the profile of someone who’d be a heart patient, I am, and things had to change,” she adds. “Cardiac rehab helped me take those steps.”
“the Eisenhower Cardiac Rehabilitation Program is one of the elite programs in the country,” says Medical Director Eric Sontz, MD, Board Certified in Cardiovascular Disease. “the facility is excellent but, moreover, the nurses and personal trainers are fantastic — enthusiastic, caring and exceptionally competent.”
Importantly, Eisenhower’s program was one of the early programs to be certified by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation (AACVPR), which means it has met rigorous national standards for quality and effectiveness.
“Despite the known benefits of cardiac rehabilitation, only about one-fourth of eligible patients — especially women, non-whites and patients over 65 — are referred,” Dr. Sontz points out. “Patients need to be their own advocates as well as realize that insurance covers cardiac rehabilitation with a physician referral.”
To learn more, contact the Eisenhower Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at 760.773.2030.