For most of 2011, Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute was "home" for Deborah Cole, 52. Thanks to the hospital's new stress management program, though, she kept up her spirits.
Three times a week, volunteers from S.M.A.R.T. — stress management and recreational therapy — Heart visit the hospital's cardiac patients and engage them in activities. They join the patients for conversation or board games. They help them use the program's computers and MP3, CD and DVD players. The patients can go online or listen to tapes, music or movies in their rooms or in the patient/visitor lounge.
"Sometimes, I just needed company, so I wouldn't start thinking, 'Why me?' or worry about my kids," said Cole, of Chicago, who underwent a heart ventricular assist device, or LVAD, implantation, then a heart transplant. "Other times, I felt well enough to play Clue or dominoes with my granddaughter, do word-search games on the computer or get on Facebook to keep in touch with my LVAD support group. When I was in intensive care, one of the members called from California to make sure I was OK because they hadn't heard from me for a while."
Cole especially enjoyed the program's relaxation tapes, she said. "I would imagine I was in the Bahamas, in China or in Hawaii," she said.
"Heart disease makes you especially vulnerable to depression, anxiety and stress," said Kim Feingold, one of three cardiac psychologists at Bluhm, which serves about 1,000 patients a year. "Clinical depression occurs in two out of five cases. Depressed patients are less likely to comply with care and more likely to put themselves at risk for complications, even death. Laughter, activities and social interaction help you fend off depression and help you physically."
Northwestern's cardiac patients range in age from 18 to 80, said Feingold. "Some are not yet married or don't yet have children," she said. "They're very worried about their futures. They can't sleep at night, so the days are long. S.M.A.R.T. Heart helps them look forward and have more positive attitudes."
Cole's favorite volunteer was Allus Brown, a Chicagoan who survived heart surgery. "He talked to me for hours," said Cole. "No one can understand what you're going through like someone else who has been there."
"I'm not as quick as I used to be," said Brown, who had kidney and heart transplants. "But I'm up and around. I'm thankful to be feeling great and happy to be helping the other patients."
Now, Cole and her family celebrate every "monthiversary" of her new heart. After she regains more strength, her to-do list includes becoming a S.M.A.R.T. Heart volunteer, getting a puppy for her granddaughter, watching her children graduate from college and taking a trip to Hawaii. "I mean Hawaii for real — not the Hawaii in my relaxation tapes," she Cole. "As soon as I can, I'm going!"
For more information, visit nmh.org/heart.