Advice from the heart: Volunteers with Bellingham Mended Hearts help patients struggling with cardiac health

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 5, 2014 

The two men would talk in the weeks before G. Peter Olsen's heart bypass surgery. His cousin, who lived in New Jersey and already had undergone two bypass surgeries, would call Olsen and tell him what to expect.

Then, one day, his cousin said: "I want you to know one thing, I was scared both times."

For the 74-year-old Olsen, who is of the "I-can-tough-this-out generation," that confession was a release. "I started crying," he says. "Somebody found me out. It's that permission to be afraid."

These days, Olsen is the one providing support to other heart patients as a member of the new Bellingham chapter of Mended Hearts.

The group is part of a national organization of the same name, created in 1951 by Dr. Dwight E. Harken and three of his open-heart surgery patients. Today, there are 300 Mended Hearts chapters and 20,000 volunteers in the U.S.

Mended Hearts brings together survivors of heart procedures to support patients with heart disease by providing a sympathetic ear, an example of life on the other side, and a chance to share the fear that patients sometimes keep even from their own family.

"A lot of people are very accustomed to shielding others," says Olsen, who is president of Bellingham Mended Hearts.

Marilynn Huffman, who had aortic valve replacement in 2011 and is vice president of the chapter, echoes those thoughts: "Someone that's going to be in the hospital can relate to me and can ask me questions easier than probably their own family. This is what we want to do; offer understanding and hope."

That can be key for those with heart disease, the second leading cause of death in Washington.

Bellingham Mended Hearts has 53 members, of whom two-thirds have gone through extensive training to become certified visitors. That means they visit patients at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center before and after a patient's heart procedures and surgeries, answer questions (although they don't give medical advice), and share their experiences - and other things.

One woman asked Huffman to see her surgery scar.

"People have all kinds of questions. She would not have asked the doctor because the doctor didn't have a scar," says the 73-year-old Huffman, before adding with a laugh: "She got to see the top of my scar."

Sometimes, it's just about letting patients see that "Yes, I have a life again," Huffman says.

Paul Smith, a PeaceHealth cardiothoracic physician assistant, helped start the Mended Hearts chapter in Bellingham after seeing the good the organization did at a hospital in Virginia.

"It really does help to have somebody that's been through it," he says.

The presence of Mended Hearts volunteers helps to alleviate anxiety and helps patients to see there is a fulfilling life after surgery.

"Heart surgery is a new start," Smith says.

It's an idea that Mended Hearts is sharing with more and more patients. When the Bellingham chapter began at the end of 2012, volunteers had three patient visits. In 2013, the number of visits to patients and their caregivers, such as family and friends, totaled about 640.

"We're great listeners, if they want to talk about the experience. Sometimes that's an important part of the recovery, too, just being able to talk about it," says Dianna Konrad, a 71-year-old Bellingham resident and Mended Hearts member who survived a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery 11 years ago.

At 66 percent, the number of Bellingham Mended Hearts members who are certified visitors is well above the national average. Members credit that to a desire to give back to others, and to PeaceHealth.

"It's because of the support of the hospital," Huffman says. "They have been outstanding."

ON THE WEB

-- Bellingham chapter of Mended Hearts cardiac support group: mendedheartsbellingham.org.

-- National organization of Mended Hearts: mendedhearts.org.

-- American Heart Association: heart.org.

MENDED HEARTS MEETING

The Bellingham chapter of Mended Hearts meets at 10:30 a.m. the first Saturday of each month at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in a conference room off the main cafeteria. The support group includes speakers and workshops to provide health information.

Details: G. Peter Olsen, president, at 360- 966-6606; Marilynn Huffman, vice president, at 360-933-1282; and the message line, 360-788-6928.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com .

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