Giving hope to Cardiac patients – one step at a time


Ten years ago, Herb Gaskill had a major heart attack in North Carolina that led to a quintuple bypass surgery.

This came as quite a surprise to Herb, who said “I had been what I thought was physically active.”

No kidding! Before the heart attack and surgery, he was a wind surfer which requires a lot of core and upper body strength.

Shortly afterward, when he returned to Newfoundland and Labrador, his family doctor told him about Eastern Health’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.

Excerising with weights at the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.

Exercising with weights at the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.

The Program, which is offered at the Memorial University’s Field House, gives people with heart conditions a chance to achieve a healthier lifestyle, while reducing future heart conditions by 25 per cent.

Wendy Decker, nurse coordinator for the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, Dr. Michael Furlong and other allied health professionals are key facilitators in the recovery of patients.

With Herb’s type of heart attack, he had learned there was a 40 per cent, five-year survival rate. So Herb entered in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program with a lot of fear. He says he was encouraged to take it one step at a time, which helped to ease his nerves.

File Photo

File Photo

“The first major benefit of the program for me was that it provided great support in dealing with the emotional issues,” explained Herb. “In this respect, Wendy Decker and Dr. Michael Furlong were excellent in helping me believe that I could get better and should ignore the statistics.”

In addition to his visits to the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, Herb was advised to exercise daily – but not overdo it. As a result, he says his heart has healed significantly!

“I believe that a continued program of daily exercise has been a central contributor to the healing process for my heart in which it has contracted – as opposed to the expected expansion, which would have led to heart failure.”

After graduating the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, Herb maintained his healthy lifestyle – and walks for a mile every morning, with a big hill in the mix. Although he doesn’t wind surf anymore, he does kite surf in Conception Bay!

Look Mom, No Chair!

Eileen Kavanagh’s story’s a little different – and so was her lifestyle.

On top of triple bypass surgery in August of 2013, she has rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, making it hard to move around in the mornings. She started the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program on February 24, 2014.

She says she didn’t like the idea of 7:30 a.m. classes on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

“I haven’t been a morning person since I retired 10 years ago, and rising at 9 a.m. is more my speed,” Eileen said. “I live a very sedentary life and so I struggled through the program.”

It was often painful – but after reading that exercise is important to heart health and much enthusiasm from Wendy Decker, she says she stuck it out – with frequent helpful reminders from Dr. Furlong to “move your feet!”

Eileen Kavanagh – Graduate of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program

Eileen Kavanagh is a graduate of the Eastern Health’s
Cardiac Rehabilitation Program

In most cases, the classes were fairly active with stretching, walking and strengthening exercises. During the strengthening exercises, she had trouble getting up and down from the mat so the program team allowed for the use of a chair.

On the bright side, after 15 minutes of walking, Wendy would call “pulse time,” that means it’s time for a break. Eileen says, “Those words became my favourite words because it meant I could stop for a few minutes – and I really needed that little break.”

After 36 visits to the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, Eileen graduated to the 10:30 a.m. program and the opportunity to sleep in! More importantly, she started to notice improvements in her balance, while also being able to stand on one leg for longer periods without the chair.

She graduated just before Christmas 2014, claiming it was the encouragement and the dedication of Eastern Health employee Wendy Decker that kept her going.

“In spite of it being hard work for me, in spite of wanting to quit many times, in spite of getting no encouragement from home because my husband worried that all the moving would kill me,” she says with a smile.

And it’s paid off. Since graduation, she’s been able to cut back on medications and has taken up Shallow Water Fitness, Yoga and Zumba Gold.

Eileen and her Yoga classmates with instructor Tina Lynnette Baird.

Eileen (middle row, in red shirt) and her Yoga classmates with instructor Tina Lynnette Baird.

When Eileen started yoga, she was still using the chair to get up and down from the mat. However, in January, her yoga instructor recommended she try without the chair. It was hard but she gave it a try and made an important discovery: she got up and down just fine!

“Even though I whined and moaned every time I had to get up and go, and was tired and achy during doing the exercises, I’m so happy I stuck with the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program,” Eileen adds.

”It was enough activity to strengthen my weak muscles – including my heart – and it lasted long enough to become a habit! I am grateful to Eastern Health and Wendy Decker and all the team for a wonderful program that I would recommend to everyone with any heart issues.”

For her part, Wendy Decker is delighted to be able to help people like Eileen and Herb.

“I feel honoured to have been part of their road to recovery and humbled that they took the time to write such nice things about their experience.”

Herb Gaskill agrees this kind of support is critical – both physically and psychologically.

“The message I got from the program was the standard prognosis doesn’t have to be,” Herb said. “There is an alternative to the scenario that the cardiologist gives you – you just have to work for it!”

This story was written by Brandi Roberts, a public relations co-operative education student with Eastern health’s Corporate Communications Department.”

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