With the celebration of February as Heart Health Month, this week (Feb. 10-16) highlights an important aspect of keeping your heart healthy after it has experienced a traumatic event: cardiac rehabilitation.
Cardiac rehab is designed to improve the health and function of your heart if you are recovering from heart trauma such as a heart attack or heart surgery.
Carolyn Flicek knows first-hand the importance of this step of recovery. On April 20, 2018, while she was attending a conference in the Cities, she suffered a major heart attack.
It was early morning when Carolyn felt a deep pain in the center of her chest. She had experienced pain like that before and chalked it up to reflux or a pulled muscle, but she said this time was different. She woke up her roommate and told her to call an ambulance.
“And I prayed right there, I said, ‘God, whatever you are going to do with me, I’m willing to accept whatever it is. I have no control. It’s all you.’”
Carolyn remembers telling first responders what was happening. She remembers the elevator ride and getting in the ambulance. She remembers entering the doors of the emergency room.
“I remember getting zapped twice. After the first zap, whoever was standing there, I just looked at them and said, ‘Don’t you ever, ever do that to me again.’ And I could hear the joules (charging up). And I got zapped again!” She laughed. “The doctor had told my roommate, ‘I hope she doesn’t remember those shocks,’ but I did. You feel every nerve in your head, shoulders, feet, fingers. You feel all the nerves. And I thought, all my nerves are working because I felt every one of them!”
Carolyn remembers small details after that but nothing definitive until she reached the ICU. They put one stent into her blocked artery to open it up and allow blood to start flowing normally. Carolyn was quickly surrounded with love and support by her husband, daughters, parents, sister and church members.
Doctors later revealed that she had suffered from a serious heart attack called the widow maker. It occurs when one of the main arteries providing blood to your heart is blocked, a condition that is fatal without emergency intervention. In Carolyn’s case, her artery was 98 percent blocked.
Amazingly, it was only five days after her heart attack that she was well enough to leave the hospital and went through one final test to see how her heart was functioning. The results surpassed expectations.
“The doctors called me a miracle heart because I was completely healed before I left the hospital,” Carolyn said. “We serve a mighty God.”
Strengthening her heart
Despite her miraculous recovery, the heart attack left Carolyn weak and in need of cardiac rehabilitation in order to strengthen her heart. She lives about six miles from Wadena and was pleased to learn that Tri-County Health Care provides cardiac rehabilitation and services from visiting cardiologists, saving her long trips to St. Cloud or Brainerd.
Lois Miller and Gloria Cichy in the cardiac rehab department helped develop a plan for Carolyn and then coached her through it.
“They were so nice. So nice,” Carolyn said. “They were positive about helping you. It wasn’t ‘you gotta do this or else.’ They were really good. They were positive and encouraged you.”
Carolyn’s typical rehab sessions began with a weigh-in, and then Lois or Gloria hooked Carolyn up to a heart monitor to track her heart’s activity. Then they helped her through a series of mild cardio workouts including walking on a treadmill and riding an Airdyne or recumbent bike. Over time, these exercises strengthened Carolyn’s heart and helped her get back to living her life fully.
“Working in cardiac rehab is very rewarding as we watch our patients improve physically and gain confidence,” Lois said.
Cardiac rehab also offers other benefits in addition to conditioning your heart, including weight management, developing healthier habits and lifestyles, increasing self-confidence, lowering the chance of future heart trauma and the ability to return to your daily life.
“It’s encouraging,” Carolyn said of cardiac rehab. “You need to do it to keep your heart strong, keep your muscles strong. It also helps with your lungs. It’s important to do cardiac rehab after you’ve had something like this because it makes you a better person inside as well as outside.”
Still beating strong
Now almost a year later, Carolyn exclaimed that she’s “doing great!” She sticks to a regular exercise routine of about five time a week and tries to hit a goal of 30 minutes a day. She has many tools at her disposal to build upon the lessons she learned at cardiac rehab, including a treadmill, bike and pull machine.
One of her favorite things to do is dance, and she loves to swap one of her exercise days for an energetic time on the dance floor. “I’m one of those dancers that can dance from the time the music starts to the end of the night,” she said. “I don’t need to stop. I just keep dancing!”
Carolyn carries nitroglycerin with her just in case, which can ease heart-related pain, but so far hasn’t had to use it. Though she has wondered if she could possibly have another heart attack, she doesn’t dwell on the thought.
“I am not afraid it might happen again. I’ve often thought about that,” she said. “Well, if it happens, it happens. There’s not a thing I can do about it. You just take your nitro and call 911 and go from there. I am at peace with it.
“For me, it was just trusting in what God had for me because there’s nothing I can do about it. You just go with it,” Carolyn said and smiled. “I’m here for some reason. He’s not finished with me yet!”
Heart attacks can happen without warning, and the symptoms can be different for men and women. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of a heart attack here.