Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Cardiac Rehab

Barred Owl
I took all the photos for this blog post since my most recent heart attack.
This January 3, I had a heart attack, yet barely a week later, I was back out birding. Birding is of course one of the best kinds of cardiac rehab—it’s low-key, doesn’t need to be strenuous but can include hiking at any level, and keeps us focused on the present. And of course, by its very nature, seeing wild birds in their own element, whether in our backyard or in wilderness, has all kinds of soothing emotional rewards. 

Pileated Woodpecker

But birding is not the main thing restoring me back to health so quickly. Cardiac rehab at Duluth's Essentia Health has been even more important for keeping me going. After my first heart attack, I was very weak—the damage to the heart was more debilitating than I’d imagined. That’s why cardiac rehab was such a godsend. People attending cardiac rehab include those who’ve had a heart attack like me, but also people who’ve had angioplasty, coronary bypass surgery or other forms of heart surgery, a heart valve repair or replacement, stent placement, and people at risk for several other heart conditions. 

I didn’t know anything about cardiac rehab before that first heart attack and felt a bit intimidated walking into what looked like a fitness center. But the people on staff, including nurses, exercise physiologists, nutrition specialists, and more, were warm and welcoming. They also made it clear from the start that my program was going to be entirely focused on helping me get back to doing what I love as much as could be possible—it was completely tailored to my own personal goals, and my quality of life involves occasional strenuous hikes while lugging heavy camera equipment. I was scared that I’d never be up to that again.

Gray Jay

The staff at cardiac rehab helped me design an exercise program that centered on work to build up my endurance and strength. By the following year, I was doing strenuous high-elevation hikes in Peru and Uganda.

Black-capped Chickadee

But this January 3, what my cardiologist called my “culprit lesion,” an aneurism on my right coronary artery, got blocked by another big clot. The right coronary artery, something I’d never once thought about during my first 63 years, is like a superhighway supplying blood to the right ventricle, the right atrium, and the nodes that regulate the heart’s rhythm.

Imagine a 2-lane expressway that suddenly, for no good reason, widens to four lanes and then, after a couple of miles, suddenly narrows back to two lanes. For 63 years, my blood cells and platelets managed to travel along that highway and to merge properly back to two lanes at the end of the aneurism, but suddenly a few collisions led to a clot forming. For a year after my first heart attack, I took a blood thinner, and after that took an aspirin every day. But that was apparently not enough to prevent another eventual traffic jam. Since I don’t have any real blockages—just that pesky aneurism—I don’t need surgery or a stent or anything, but I will be on warfarin for the duration, which should prevent platelets and blood cells from sticking together even if they collide as they merge out of the aneurism.

Thanks to my first cardiac rehab and all the excellent lessons I learned there, I was a lot stronger facing this heart attack than last time around, so my recovery is going faster. Even though I’m in a lot of good habits, it’s again been cardiac rehab that has helped me bounce back again. It would be way scarier to start doing any kind of exercise on my own, without them monitoring my heart the whole time as I worked my way up to doing vigorous aerobic exercise and also some upper body strength work.

Great Gray Owl

This is National Heart Month, and last week I attended a luncheon hosted by Duluth’s health care providers and the American Heart Association, focusing on how much research and education are necessary in the area of women’s heart health. I was shocked to learn that even though heart attacks and heart disease kill more women every year than every form of cancer put together, and that cardiac rehab significantly increases both life expectancy and quality of life, women are far, far less likely than men to take advantage of it. Me, I'm back lugging my 8 and a half pound camera in the field, thrilled that I'm still alive and able to enjoy the birds on this planet, thanks in large part to cardiac rehab.