While people can live with one kidney and an array of repaired or patched organs such as livers and lungs, there is only one heart. To be told that you have to have surgery on that one lone and all important organ can be horrifying.
That is why Bill Malouche and his team of people who visit heart patients at the Providence Hospital do what they do. They are part of a national organization started over 50 years ago called Mended Hearts, and their goal is to show prospective heart surgery patients that there is life after the surgery. Malouche is the chairman of the Providence Hospital chapter of the organization.
“ You only have one heart,” Malouche said. “Lying in a hospital bed awaiting surgery on that heart can be one of the most terrifying time in a person’s life. Then one of us will come by and show them ‘Hey….look….I went through what you are facing and I’m fine!’ It really seems to help them.”
Mended Hearts began more than half a decade ago after a doctor overheard several patients who had different operations discussing their experiences and fears among themselves. They were open with each other and reassured each other. The doctor thought that would be a great idea for all patients everywhere, said Malouche.
“The doctor saw that the patients were interested in each others’ experiences, and it seemed to have a calming effect on them to know others had been through similar procedures and can return to a normal lifestyle.”
Malouche is a member of one of the 272 nationwide chapters of Mended Hearts, and he said the organization has more than 17,000 members dedicated to facilitating a positive outlook in the patient as they face a serious surgery.
“Our chapter has about 125 people in it, and we work mainly with Providence Hospital in Columbia,” Malouche said. “ We make visits seven days a week, and we are very diversified in race, ages, and gender.”
Follow up phone calls are also a significant part of the group’s work, Malouche said.
“ We like to stay in touch after they go home,” he said. “A lot of times that’s when they have the real questions. Sometimes before the surgery they don’t know what to ask, but once they begin their recuperation, it’s good for them to be able to ask us how we felt at what stage of recovery.”
Malouche said that it was important for a person about to go into surgery to see people who have totally recovered and are willing to share their experiences.
“ When I tell them that I had open–heart surgery almost 14 years ago, I can see it gives them hope,” he said.
Becky Leaphart had open–heart surgery several years ago at Providence Hospital, and she said the Mended Hearts visits were a huge comfort to her.
“Several people came into my room after they told me I had to have the surgery, and it made such a difference to see them fully recovered and to know they got through it,” she said. “When you’re afraid of something, and you get to see someone who has had the same thing, it makes you think you might just turn out okay too.”
Leaphart said it was helpful to be able to ask questions that she may not have asked her doctor.
“The doctors do the operations, but they don’t have to go through the recovery,” she said. “ It helped a lot to talk to someone who could tell me what to expect. I had questions about how long it was going to take to get back to normal and how much pain would be involved.”
Malouche said it really is a positive thing for women to talk to other women because they would have different concerns than men.
“ I think it does a woman about to go into heart surgery a lot of good to see a nicely dressed woman looking healthy and happy after going through the same thing,” he said.
“It gives her not just hope, but incentive that she too will be able to get through it and live her life as she previously had.”
Malouche stressed that his group doesn’t give medical advice, they only share their personal experiences.
“We are not doctors, and we don’t talk about anything but what the patient will be going through, depending on if they are having a stint put in or open–heart surgery,” he said.
“ I always advise them to do exactly what their doctor tells them to do and nothing more,” he said with a laugh.
Kay MacInnis, a dietician and health and wellness specialist at Providence works closely with the Mended Hearts program, and she said their work is invaluable to the patients.
“ Because Mended Hearts is made up of the very kinds of people it serves, that is to say heart patients and their families, its members draw on their own personal experiences so they can talk to the patient and tell them things that no doctor or nurse could,” she said.
“ They can relate to the people about to have the surgery, and they can tell them what to expect, what will happen to them, how they will feel and for how long. That’s such a comfort for the patient to know that someone else got through the tough parts and returned to a normal life.”
The Mended Hearts program partners with 460 hospitals and rehabilitation clinics and offers services to heart patients through visiting programs, support group meetings, and educational forums, Malouche said.
Their website states the mission of the organization is to “inspire hope in heart disease patients and their families.”
Mended Hearts support groups help people understand there can be a rich, rewarding life after heart disease. Members listen, share their experiences, learn from healthcare professionals, and volunteer to talk to other heart patients about what they may face including lifestyle changes, depression, recovery, and treatment. Annually, Mended Hearts volunteers make 227,000 hospital visits to patients and 30,000 visits to family members and caregivers, Malouche estimated.
Leaphart agrees in the value of talking with people who have been there. She said that because they explained to her in detail what would happen and what to expect, she wasn’t so terrified of the surgery.
“ They told me it would be hard, and recovery would be rough, and there would be some pain and soreness,” she said. “But after talking to them, I knew I would be okay. If those people hadn’t talked to me, I would have been scared to death, but because they came by my room, I wasn’t so afraid.”