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FirstHealth of the Carolinas
Rehabilitating the heart By Amy Avery
The Cardiac Rehab program at the FirstHealth Center for Health & Fitness-Pinehurst moved into newly renovated space earlier this year.

Just a year ago, Tony Robertson, 66, would get seriously breathless after climbing a simple flight of stairs.

These days, he enjoys vigorous, hour-long workouts six mornings every week at FirstHealth’s Center for Health & Fitness-Pinehurst. “I didn’t take care of myself after a minor heart attack in 1995,” Robertson says, “but I’m absolutely dedicated to fitness today.”

Robertson hopes that no one else has to endure his particular path to better health. His newfound focus came about dramatically last December, by way of a massive heart attack, stroke and diabetes diagnosis—all at once.

“When my wife got me to the hospital, I was so short of breath that they had to ventilate me,” he says. “They called the family in. They thought they’d lost me that night.”

The “coach” gets a new team
By the next morning, cardiologists at FirstHealth Moore Regional had inserted a stent (a medical device that opens up a blocked artery) during an emergency procedure. As this former football coach recovered in the hospital, Robertson found himself drafted for a new team, with a new breed of coaches he never knew existed.

“By January, I was in the Cardiac Rehab program at FirstHealth,” he says. “I didn’t have that option where I lived after my first heart attack. I was elated that this was here.”

Robertson is clear that the Cardiac Rehab team at FirstHealth was key to his remarkable turnaround.

“They are no doubt the most professional, kind, caring people I have ever, ever met,” he says. “I’ve lost 41 pounds, am now off of insulin injections, and might soon get off the diabetes medication. They are just fantastic.”

The change factor
“The staff is the heart and soul of this program,” says Darrell Simpkins, M.D., medical director of FirstHealth’s Cardiac Rehab program.

The entire team has the reputation of meeting each patient wherever he or she is, physically or emotionally, he says.

Aberdeen resident Tony Robertson enrolled in the Cardiac Rehab program in Pinehurst after suffering a massive heart attack and stroke. He has since lost 41 pounds and no longer needs insulin injections for his diabetes.

“Some patients just need education, and others might benefit from counseling if they feel depressed or scared,” says the program’s director, Jean Barrett-Taylor. “Every staff member understands the big picture for every patient. We become a friend, mentor and coach.”

The Cardiac Rehab team meets with patients three times weekly for 12 to 18 weeks, providing safe and effective exercise and discussing nutrition, weight control, stress management, fitness and medications as well as such medical risk factors as smoking, diabetes and high cholesterol.

“Patients benefit not only from the educational part of the program, but also from seeing and talking to other patients who have been in the same place they’ve been, who’ve had the same fears and are now doing well,” says Dr. Simpkins.

“It’s a learning process for patients, and it works,” says Dr. Simpkins, who is also an emergency department physician. “If patients don’t go through the Cardiac Rehab program, I am more likely to see them in the emergency room later.”

Nationally, patients who participate in a certified cardiac rehab program are able to prevent future cardiac episodes and reduce overall cardiovascular mortality by 25 to 30 percent. They also have fewer hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

According to the national Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, less than one-third of eligible candidates actually participate in cardiac rehabilitation programs, however, although all would likely benefit from it.

Participation strong in the Sandhills
Robertson, who lives in Aberdeen, is grateful that he had access to Cardiac Rehab this time around. People in other parts of the state are not so lucky. In North Carolina today, only 26 cardiac rehab programs, including FirstHealth’s, are certified by the national oversight organization, the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation. Only 76 are certified by the North Carolina Division of Facility Services.

Presently, more than 150 patients participate in FirstHealth’s programs in Rockingham and Pinehurst. Program “graduates” can continue their fitness programs by joining the Cardiac Rehab Bridge to Wellness, which can help them transition to a lifestyle of fitness and independence, or one of the FirstHealth Centers for Health & Fitness.

The Cardiac Rehab team is also working to expand the program, possibly by adding evening hours for the younger, working cardiac patient. As for Robertson, he is now a card-carrying member of the FirstHealth Center for Health & Fitness and champion for FirstHealth’s Cardiac Rehab team as well as his regular cardiologist, Allen Strunk, D.O., and Peter Duffy, M.D., the cardiologist who did his stent procedure. Both Dr. Strunk and Dr. Duffy are members of the Pinehurst Cardiology Consultants practice.

“We are so fortunate to have such a facility and staff,” he says. “If they need anyone to help raise funds or get the word out or even stand on their heads, I will do it for them.”

For more information on the FirstHealth Cardiac Rehab program, call (800) 213-3284 toll-free.