Davis: Heart-to-heart talks a comfort

Since my first bout with lung cancer, I've tried to be accessible to anyone hearing that same diagnosis and wondering what to expect from treatment and recovery.

I wanted to tell them some of those little things to watch for that only those who have been there and done know about.

After talking with a couple of volunteers for Mended Hearts, I realized that's what that program does, too.

Robert Slucher, Carl Peter and Joan Veazey have undergone heart surgery in years past. They remember the uncertainties and questions they had and now try to allay those fears for patients who have gone through or are about to go through similar life-saving procedures.

But is heart surgery that ominous any more to warrant such a group? Slucher said it depends on the perspective.

"If it is you, yes," said Slucher, 77. "If it is me talking to someone else, no."

Slucher said 21 years ago doctors told him he had four blockages. A volunteer from Mended Hearts visited with him before the surgery and answered his questions.

After surgery, his wife suggested he get involved with Mended Hearts to help others, and he did. "He and that man stayed really close," Alice Slucher said, of her husband's relationship with that early volunteer. "They had a strong connection."

Now Robert Slucher visits heart patients on Mondays at St. Joseph Hospital on Harrodsburg Road.

Only those who have been heart patients can visit with a heart patient or family members.

"We can give encouragement by showing we have been through it ourselves," said Peter, who is president of the local chapter. "Life doesn't have to be altered too dramatically after surgery."

Mended Hearts Inc. is a national non-profit organization founded in Boston in 1951 by four former heart bypass patients, two male and two female, who had met and shared their experiences. Incorporated in 1955 and affiliated with the American Heart Association, Mended Hearts is a network of more than 21,000 members in 285 chapters who are medical professionals, former patients and family members.

Peter said the local chapter receives some funding from the heart association and from Central Baptist Hospital, St. Joseph and the University of Kentucky, the three hospitals volunteers visit in Lexington.

Each volunteer who visits hospitals must be accredited and must accompany a seasoned volunteer at first. The certification involves learning hospital regulations, HIPAA privacy rules, and learning ways to be encouraging and supportive.

Joan Veazey said she joined soon after her mitral valve replacement surgery in 1991, but she didn't become an accredited visitor until four years later. "My satisfaction comes from giving back what people gave to me when I was in the hospital," she said. "It is an emotionally and physically stressful type of surgery."

Volunteers always leave a pillow, which, when held to the chest while coughing, can protect the incision, and a packet of information about medication, post-operative activity, and contact numbers.

"Sometimes there are not that many questions," she said. "It is all so new to them. If they have questions later, they can call."

Peter said he reinforces information given by the physician such as avoid heavy lifting, or exertion; don't drive a car the first month after surgery; and on leaving the hospital put the pillow between the chest and the seat belt.

"I talk about living with heart disease," said Peter, 85, who had quadruple bypass surgery six years ago. "Your heart isn't as it was as a young person or as it was before surgery. Your heart has been around."

Peter said he also emphasizes a change in diet and increased activity to keep healthy.

Slucher said although the local chapter has more than 150 members, not all of them are hospital visitors.

Volunteers made 74 visits to local hospitals in January, but either because of the weather, illnesses or too few volunteers, a total of 23 patients were not visited. So they could use help.

After training, you are just required to offer hope, encouragement and yourself as an example.

"As Albert Schweitzer said," Peter pointed out, " 'Experience is not the best teacher; it is the only teacher.' "

If you have been a heart surgery patient and want to get involved, meetings are held on the fourth Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m., Saint Joseph Office Park on Harrodsburg Road, in Building D on the 4th floor.

Or call Slucher at (859) 296-0068 for more information.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader