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After a Heart Attack: Getting Back to Life

By Rhonda Mann
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Staff

It was just after a workout when Brian Connell, age 38, first felt it -- a stiff pain in his neck and shoulders. He figured he had injured the area but by the next morning, the pain was enough for a trip to the emergency room.

"I said to the doctor, 'I'm having a heart attack, aren't I?,'" recalls Connell, who just completed the annual American Heart Association Heart Walk as the top fundraiser in the region. "He said 'yes, you are. Thank God you did what you did. Most people your age would not have come in.'"

Connell considers himself lucky. As a general manger for EMC, he spends much of his time traveling and may not have been near a hospital at the time of his heart attack. He had a coronary angiogram to remove a blood clot and a stent placed to keep the artery open. The lesson was an eye-opening, life-changing one.

"Take care of your heart through exercise and eating right," says Connell, who dropped 50 pounds after the heart attack. "Take time for yourself to relax and avoid things that are going to put you in stressful situations."

Many patients who have had a heart attack make a similar commitment to change, according to Dr. Ernest Gervino, Director of Clinical Physiology at The Cardiovascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

"The patient is really faced with mortality. They may have thought they had all the time in the world on their hands and suddenly they're stopped in their tracks," says Dr. Gervino, who is also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. "They've been told they have damage to their heart and need to make lifestyle changes-and they comply."

One of the greatest challenges is getting patients to exercise regularly, says Dr. Gervino, in part due to fears that exercise could prompt another heart attack.

In fact, one study shows proper exercise following a heart event can reduce mortality by 27 percent. While there are cardiac rehabilitation programs to help them learn how to safely become active, another recent study points out less than 1/3 of eligible patients participate.

"It's important the patient selects activities they can do safely and for most that will mean getting feedback from a professional," says Gervino. "Activities may include gardening, walking, dancing, cycling - anything that offers physical movement for 30 minutes at a level of activity that makes them mildly short of breath but does not make them breathless."

Exercise lowers blood pressure and levels of bad cholesterol, burns calories to help with weight control, and improves glucose intolerance which is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. It can also help relieve stress and anger, Gervino notes.

Connell joined a cardiac rehabilitation program at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center. He bought a bicycle and enjoys riding in the city. He has also starting eating better - cutting down on unhealthy fats.

"It doesn't take a lot longer to chop up a bowl of fruit and eat it or roast up some vegetables or pick out whole wheat pasta," he says.

In addition to making physical changes, Dr. Gervino says patients must deal with the emotional and social trauma of a heart attack. One study out of Johns Hopkins University suggests one in five patients hospitalized after heart attack experience major depression. Socially, patients may feel that because they may need to cut down on their alcohol intake, for example, they cannot go to a restaurant with their friends who may be drinkers. Dr. Gervino suggests patients be upfront with their friends and family about their concerns, and ask for professional help to cope with their needs.

"It's rare the individual can make changes by themselves," says Gervino, adding that loved ones can play a pivotal role in making the necessary changes.

"If you and your spouse normally watch TV or read the paper after dinner you can both decide to go for a walk instead."

Connell urges everyone to know their risk factors for heart attack and do something about it now - before it's too late.

"With technology and medical advances and the right nutrition, exercise and medication, it doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion," he says.

Above content provided by The American Heart Association in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted December 2009

Contact Information

CardioVascular Institute at
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215