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Published: Monday, 10/12/2009

Toledo group marks 30 years of offering surgery patients help in heartfelt ways

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Helen Jones was just a day or so from going home after having heart bypass surgery at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center when she received an unexpected visitor.

Randy Cooper, a volunteer with Mended Hearts, dropped by to see how she was and ask if she had any questions about what to expect when she returned home.

The Findlay man is not a medical professional, but he has a special expertise when it comes to heart surgery - he's been there and done that.

"How's your appetite?" he asked Mrs. Jones.

"It left for a bit," the 69-year-old Toledoan said.

"That's pretty typical," Mr. Cooper told her. "Are you walking around yet?"

The conversation went on, gradually reaching the point where Mrs. Jones asked him about his own heart surgery.

Mr. Cooper was just 38 when he suffered an aneurysm on his aorta and underwent emergency open-heart surgery 10 days later. That was in 2001, and he is doing just fine.

Spreading that message of hope is one of the main goals of Mended Hearts, a support group for heart patients that is marking its 30th year in Toledo.

The Glass City chapter was the 100th in the national organization, which started in 1951 after some of the first patients to undergo the then-new surgery got together to help others who would be in their shoes.

The group's motto: "It's great to be alive and to help others."

Jill Snyder of Toledo, Chapter 100 president, said open-heart surgery is considered a bit more routine than it was in 1951.

"That may be true - until it's you," she said. "I think there will always be a need for what we do. At the hospitals we visit and at hospitals around the country, they really appreciate it. They feel it helps their patients. Nurses and doctors say, 'I do this stuff, but I don't know what it feels like.'•"

In addition to visiting patients - Toledo volunteers made nearly 900 visits last year - Mended Hearts volunteers make and deliver about 2,000 of their trademark Huggy Pillows every year to heart patients at St. Luke's, St. Vincent, and Toledo hospitals.

The soft but firm pillow - with Mended Hearts' name and logo on the front - helps cushion a patient's tender chest area when he or she coughs after open-heart surgery.

Mrs. Jones was given one by a nurse at St. Vincent's shortly after she came out of surgery, and she had it right at her side four days later.

"You kind of count on this pillow," she said. "It helps. It really does."

Mr. Cooper suggested that when she goes home from the hospital that she place it on her chest before putting her seat belt on. "That will help," he told her.

Sandy Reinhard, supervisor of the cardiovascular unit at St. Luke's, said it's comfort and advice such as that which help assure patients they can recover.

"No one else can better explain it than someone who's been through the situation themselves," she said.

"The patients get to see someone come in who says they had surgery so many years ago and the patient sees they're up volunteering, living a normal lifestyle, belonging to the community."

Ms. Snyder had open-heart surgery and a valve replacement in 1993 when she was just 43.

Like Mr. Cooper, she was visited in the hospital by an older couple who belonged to Mended Hearts. She was so impressed that she joined the organization.

Mr. Cooper conceded he wasn't really interested in talking to the Mended Hearts volunteers at the time, but in the days and weeks after his surgery, he realized he needed help.

He was scared, anxious, and ultimately depressed about what had happened to him.

"Am I going to have complications? How is my life going to be affected? Am I going to wake up tomorrow?" he recalled. "I had always coached my son's ball team and I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to coach again."

His wife retrieved the information that the Mended Hearts volunteers had left with him at St. Vincent. He called Ms. Snyder and attended his first Mended Hearts meeting.

The group holds regular meetings at which it has speakers and plenty of time to talk.

Mr. Cooper said that a year after his first meeting, he completed the training required to become a Mended Hearts visitor. He figures he has visited about 150 patients since 2002.

"What it reminds me of, in a sports reference, is they're the opponent and I'm the other opponent. But once I tell them I've been through what they've been through, that's when they start opening up, that's when they start talking," he said.

He likened the program to other support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

"This is open-heart surgery. There are going to be questions. There are going to be some problems coping with it," Mr. Cooper said.

"It took me a long time to cope. I wouldn't talk about it. I was in denial, I went through a lot of depression with it."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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