Hear firsthand how one rehab patient’s positivity and perseverance helped her conquer hiking trails out West after surviving heart surgery and cancer.

News, Your Health | 6 months ago

Cardiac Rehab Program Helps Patient Move Mountains – and Climb Them Too!

After a heart attack or surgery, some may feel like their life is over. But thanks to Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, patients are learning heart-healthy habits that can make them feel better than ever. Hear firsthand how one rehab patient’s positivity and perseverance helped her conquer hiking trails out West after surviving heart surgery and cancer.

Intense heat. High altitudes. Slick rock and sheer cliffs. For most people, hiking the natural sandstone arches of Arches National Park in Utah would be quite an undertaking. The winding trails that span the desert landscape offer no shade and climb up to nearly 6,000 feet above sea level.

But what if you were 75 years old and had a history of heart disease and cancer? How would you feel about tackling such an endeavor?

For Linda McConnell, she accomplished just that. But before we talk about her amazing feat, let’s discuss how she got there.

Heart health challenges

Since her mid-20s, Linda has been careful about her heart health, knowing heart disease runs in her family. But over the years, she developed some problems with her arteries.

In 2015, Linda was having trouble breathing as she struggled to climb just 3 or 4 stairs. Hadley Wilson, MD, executive vice chair of Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute and Linda’s cardiologist, performed a heart catheterization and discovered 3 blocked arteries and 1 artery that couldn’t be repaired. She then had 4 stents placed in her heart. Following her recovery, Linda signed up for the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.

Cardiac education and training

“Through education and training in a group setting, cardiac rehab is designed to help reset the patient’s health by getting them into a heart-healthy lifestyle,” Dr. Wilson explained. “This strategy has been shown to prevent rehospitalization and increase medical compliance with beneficial lifestyle changes – leading to better outcomes and fewer future heart problems.”

Cardiac rehab involves education and training in:

  • Diet: Registered dietitian nutritionists teach healthy eating habits, focusing on the benefits of a plant-based Mediterranean diet.
  • Exercise: Patients are encouraged to get at least 30-40 mins of aerobic exercise 5 days a week (or 150 mins total each week). Linda enjoys using the treadmill, recumbent cross trainer and rowing machine.
  • Relaxation and stress management: Psychologists share tips for improving mental health and managing stress. They also hold weekly relaxation sessions that include calm, quiet music or videos. “I’ve had issues with blood pressure for over 30 years,” explained Linda. “But these sessions really helped me lower my blood pressure, so I started applying the same techniques at home.”

Cardiac rehab is offered as a turnkey, wraparound program that’s built into Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute’s discharge process for patients who’ve had cardiac events. “Our well-organized charge nurses get patients enrolled as soon as they leave the hospital,” Dr. Wilson said. “That way, we know the patients will be monitored after discharge and continue to have a great support system.”

Dr. Wilson also highlighted the close relationship between the cardiac rehab team and Sanger’s cardiovascular team. “If patients are having an issue, such as an arrhythmia, during an exercise session, our doctors can respond directly to the rehab team about making adjustments to medications or activity levels,” he said. “This helps keep patients out of the emergency department while preventing future cardiac events.”

Benefits of group education

“Many people are depressed after a heart attack or surgery, thinking their life is over,” explained Dr. Wilson. “By participating in the rehab program with others who’ve had similar experiences, patients are encouraged to work together on cultivating healthy lifestyle habits that can help them live longer, better lives.”

The program worked so well for Linda that she signed up for a maintenance program that continued beyond the standard 12 weeks. In fact, over the past 6 years, Linda has spent quite a bit of time in cardiac rehab to help her maintain her heart health. This includes time she spent in the program following her recovery from an emergency artery repair she had in 2017.

Throughout her years in cardiac rehab, Linda has made “many wonderful friends” who have become an inspiration to her, including those who dealt with severe health challenges at a young age.

Overcoming cancer and helping others

Linda McConnellHeart problems aren’t the only health challenge Linda has dealt with. In 2005, just 10 months after she and her husband relocated to the Charlotte area, she learned she had breast cancer. “If we had lived somewhere more remote, I don’t think it would have been detected,” she revealed. “We really feel like we belong here in Charlotte. We were at the right place at the right time. We’re so grateful to be here.”

Initially, Linda struggled with her diagnosis. “At first, I thought cancer was a death sentence, since no one else in my family had it,” she explained. Her feelings changed when she arrived at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute for her first appointment. “The receptionist looked at me and could tell I was about to cry. She was so kind and offered to get me the help I needed to feel comfortable.”

After receiving surgery and radiation under the care of Richard White, MD, Linda’s now in remission and doing what she can to help others. “I can’t say enough about the care provided by Atrium Health,” she said. “I’m now on a patient-family advisory committee, which has given me added insight into how much the doctors and other staff truly care about their patients. It’s a group of wonderful, dedicated people just happy to help in any way they can.”

Making it to the top

In October 2021, Linda and her family headed to Arches National Park to do some hiking. At first, she was intimidated by the huge expanse of slick rock and sandstone cliffs. “My husband stayed behind me and encouraged me the whole time,” she said. “I was in the front of the line – and I made it the top first! I was so encouraged by my progress. I was able to go all the way up the mountain and come back down.”

During her trip, she was able to finish 2 other fairly strenuous hikes, outpacing her sister-in-law, who is younger than she is.

Positivity and cultivating healthy habits

Once you meet Linda, it’s easy to see why she’s had so much success in cardiac rehab. “She’s a great example of someone who’s responded very well to the program,” Dr. Wilson noted. “She really absorbed the experience and made it part of her lifestyle. She’s a responder and a very positive patient who wanted to improve her life.”

How can Linda’s example help others? “Linda is living proof that if patients apply the healthy habits from the program, they can lose weight, lower their cholesterol and increase their exercise stamina,” explained Dr. Wilson. “After sufficient rehabilitation and recovery, these patients can achieve a normal, healthy lifestyle, perhaps even feeling better than they did before their heart attack or surgery.”

Learn more about the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.