When John Carey had triple bypass heart surgery 15 years ago he realized that he needed to make changes to improve his health.

"I wasn't living the proper lifestyle," said Carey of his diet and activity level. "Now I am."

And not just because of the heart surgery and the wake up call that came with it, he said, but because of the rehabilitation and maintenance program that came after.

Carey, now 79, is among an elite group of active adults who have participated for more than a decade in the Riverside Shore Cardiopulmonary Wellness Services program, one that celebrates 15 years of service this year.

The Riverside Shore Cardiopulmonary Wellness Services program started in 1999 for cardiac patients as a partnership with the Eastern Shore Family YMCA and expanded to pulmonary patients in 2000.  The program helps patients recover from cardiac surgeries, heart attacks, heart related illnesses, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and other pulmonary diseases.  In addition, the program focuses on long-term quality of life after the acute recovery phase is finished.

The services include both an insurance-based rehabilitation program, which Carey participated in after his surgery at the urging, and prescription, of his doctor, and a subsequent maintenance program that keeps patients coming back twice a week to exercise and have their heart and lungs monitored.

It's that maintenance program that sets Riverside Shore's program apart because it goes a step past recovery and into a permanent change of lifestyle, patients and team members said.

"Our focus is on keeping people active and independent even with major heart or lung disease," said Wendy Taylor, Supervisor of the Riverside Shore Cardiopulmonary Wellness Services program. "We are called a rehabilitation program, but it is very different from the traditional physical therapy that most people know. We're looking at your heart health, your cardiovascular endurance, your lungs. We want to know how you're breathing and how healthy your heart is.  And we do it all in a closely monitored setting so there is no worry about being unsafe."

Taylor said that despite the great research showcasing the value of a program like this, even nationally the percentage of people who participate in a rehabilitation or maintenance program for heart and lung health is very low - roughly 25 percent of those who are eligible to enroll.

"Many people are motivated after a major heart or lung event to work toward better health, but they may not appreciate the difference between exercising on their own and exercising while being monitored for improvement," Taylor said. "Once they participate, they see the benefit and become our biggest fans."

So what are the benefits?

Both the cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs are physician-directed and include individualized treatment plans to help manage symptoms and improve or maintain activities of daily living.

With a staff of two registered nurses and an exercise physiologist, "we give patients guidance on what exercises they can safely while also monitoring their blood pressure, blood oxygen rate and other factors," Taylor said. "We also do a great deal of education."

Every Friday, the program opens up to the community for free health education seminars at the Hospital in Nassawadox at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Topics vary from healthy and safe exercise techniques and stress management to diabetes and nutrition. If a community group wants Taylor or the other staff members in the program to do a presentation to them at their location, Taylor said they can do that, too.

The medical maintenance program, of which Carey is now a part, allows individuals to retain their fitness level by participating in a medically supervised exercise program two days a week at the YMCA. 

The professional staff of the program monitors blood pressure, oxygen levels and heart rate before, during and after exercise.

Carey calls it the breakfast club.

"Being there, having that accountability, has helped me keep my weight down, make sure my heart is functioning properly and helps me continue doing what I'm supposed to be doing to stay healthy" and prevent the need for any future heart surgeries.

"In this program, that's the most rewarding part," Taylor said of watching patients remain in or return to an active life. "You see them from the point where they are just starting to feel a little bit better to them feeling back to normal.  It is our privilege to help them return to a healthy, active life. They become part of the family."

Published: August 6, 2014