Sunday, March 19, 2000

Patients learn survival skills

Heart program prolongs lives

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT THOMAS — Members of the “zipper club” have two things in common: scars down the middle of their chests and a commitment to out-exercising death.

        They can joke about their scars, which they call “zippers,” because they have survived cardiac illnesses and been changed. Laughter is precious. Exercise is even better.

        “We know this is keeping us alive,” says Albert Wind Jr., 75.

        He and his compatriots work out three times a week at St. Luke's Hospital East, which has Northern Kentucky's oldest cardiac rehabilitation program.

        It offers exercise and diet classes to people recovering from bypass surgery, chest pain and heart attacks. At any time, about 300 patients from age 30 and up are enrolled.

        Many were smokers who exercised little and stressed out a lot. Now they hit the hospital's treadmills, free weights and rowing machines with missionary determination, while nurses scurry around checking blood pressure and giving encouragement.

        Mr. Wind, of Erlanger, has been coming here since a clogged artery caused chest pains in 1990. Insurance covered the first 12 weeks of rehabilitation. Since then, Mr. Wind has paid $40 a month to continue exercising.

        In the mornings, most of the participants are senior citizens. The men work out in various ensembles lacking in style: work pants and sweaters, walking shorts with white socks and black shoes.

        Obviously, they're not trying to impress the babes. They're here to live longer.

        “This is like a way of life for me from now on,” says Florence Matthews of Bellevue, one of a growing number of women in the program. “It motivates me and gets me ready for the rest of the day.”

        During the first 12 weeks, patients wear monitors that track their heart rates, and nurses micro-manage the exercise, says Wiley Piazza, program manager.

        These newcomers often look nervous. The others understand.

        “You're scared to death after you have a heart attack,” Mr. Wind says. “My wife would leave the room and I'd say, "Where are you going? Where are you going?'”

        Arriving home from the hospital, he was afraid to climb the six steps to his front door. On his first day in rehabilitation, he stood on a treadmill and thought, “This is it. I'm never going to make it.”

        Now he's religious about his exercise and diet, which involves lots of fruit and no fat. He's also quick with quips.

        “One fellow who used to come in here, he'd say, "You're half-dead anyway, so laugh, have fun, make jokes!'” Mr. Wind recalls.

        All the members of the zipper club have heart stories. They're fluent in the language of ventricles, vessels and valves, and nobody is squeamish.

        Tom Vossmeyer, 71, points to the long, thin scar snaking up his leg. That's where the doctors stripped a vein and used it to bypass a bad artery, he says.

        Paul LaBare, 67, had his heart trouble while getting treatment for cancer. His spleen, 5 inches of his esophagus and half his stomach were removed, and he was given a 3 percent chance to live.

        “Of course I went home and bought two mausoleums. But I never did die,” he says.

        While undergoing chemotherapy, Mr. LaBare felt a strange tightening in his Adam's apple. That was the heart attack. Because he wasn't strong enough for surgery, he exercised at St. Luke's for two years, improving his circulation enough to get by. Eventually, he had a successful bypass.

        Ms. Matthews, 70, has the best heart story of all.

        One of her valves was leaking, so doctors replaced it with one from a pig. After her surgery, she sat up in bed for her first meal and — voila — the hospital was serving roasted pork.

        “I thought, "Oh my God, I can't eat that. It's like eating my sister!'”

        She's telling this story to three other patients after a workout. They crack up.

        With perfect timing, Ms. Matthews continues. “I really feel closer to the pigs than I ever did before. They're really cute and friendly.”

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at


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