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Cardiac support group also reaches out to patients, families

POSTED: August 9, 2009 10:30 p.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Peter Rocco with the Mended Hearts program talks with heart patient Paul Norris at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

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Peter Rocco recalls the fear before he had triple bypass surgery 21 years ago.

“There wasn’t anybody to talk to, and I was scared,” he said. “If (the hospital) had somebody from Mended Hearts, the initiation would be a lot easier.”

These days, as president of the Northeast Georgia chapter of Mended Hearts, a national cardiac support group, he is using his health experiences to help prepare others and their family members for what could be, for many, uncertain times ahead.

“Our main focus is counseling with patients who have heart disease before and after their surgery,” said Rocco, whose wife, Gertrud, is the group’s secretary and newsletter editor.

“We also meet and counsel with the families and help them with what to expect.”

The group started several years after Lynda Adams became director of cardiology services at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

She “was absolutely determined that this hospital should have a Mended Hearts chapter,” said Jim Harmon, program chairman for the group.

The group had to meet certain criteria, including having 32 people interested as a members, to form the chapter.

Some 50-plus people belong to the group, which accepts anyone interested in the group’s mission. However, only caregivers or heart patients can visit people before or after surgeries, Harmon said.

The group meets the first Tuesday of each month at the hospital.

Members meet once a week with patients.

“We have pretty strict guidelines and procedures we need to follow,” Harmon said. “The initial training was pretty in-depth. We still have a training period for every volunteer.”

All hospital volunteers are required to attend an orientation session, said Lynne Allen, director of volunteer services at the hospital.

“Following orientation, we have them train with other experienced Mended Hearts visitors and that’s how they become certified as visitors,” Allen said.

Rocco joined Mended Hearts after he had retired and started undergoing cardiac rehabilitation at the hospital.

He heard Harmon and another member talking about the group. He asked some questions and got an invitation to a meeting.
Rocco was pleased by what he saw and heard, noticing that the chapter was a “cohesive and congenial group.”

“When they started talking about visiting patients, I felt that was something I could relate to,” he said.

His wife followed soon after.

“I know that Peter would have liked somebody to have visited him before his surgery. He was very worried about what surgery was going to be like and his life after surgery,” Gertrud Rocco said.

She said her husband enjoys telling patients “things are not as bad as you think and sometimes you’re healthier after a heart event ... because you’re changing your lifestyle.”

The group’s vice president, Ernie Fellers, is longing for the day he can visit patients. He’s retiring in a couple of months.

“Just to give back,” he said, explaining his excitement.

Fellers had open-heart surgery six years ago at Northeast Georgia and was visited by Mended Hearts members.

He wanted to learn more, so after getting doctors’ clearance, “they put me in a gown, put me in a wheelchair, hooked me all up and wheeled me into the meeting,” he said. “And I’ve been coming ever since.”

In July, the hospital received Mended Hearts’ national Hospital Award for 2009. It was selected from 12 finalists identified by eight volunteer regional directors from throughout the country.

The hospital’s selection was “made with confidence after comparing criteria and considering the true partnership approach taken in the relationship with between the medical center and its local chapter,” said Tim Elsner, Mended Hearts executive director. “It is a model for others to follow.”

Allen said the honor reflects well on the Mended Hearts chapter as well.

The group provides “such an important support service to ... patients and families, and we are pleased to assist them in any way we can to ensure the program’s success.”



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