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Mended Hearts volunteers are stars of ball

American Heart Association fundraiser set for Saturday

POSTED: February 28, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Tom Reed The Times/

Mended Hearts volunteer Ruth Whitfield visits with heart patient Fulvia Ferguson recently at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. The Mended Hearts program will be honored at the upcoming Heart Ball, a fundraiser for the American Heart Association.

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Undergoing a heart procedure can be a scary, life-altering experience. It helps to be able to talk to someone who's been through it before.

That's what Mended Hearts is all about. Approximately two dozen volunteers work part time at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, visiting cardiac patients both before and after surgeries and angioplasties.

"They are one of the most dedicated volunteer groups we have within the health system," said Lynn Allen, director of volunteer services at the hospital. "They're active seven days a week, and they've given over 16,000 hours of service since the Ronnie Green Heart Center opened (in 2002)."

That dedication will be rewarded Saturday night, when the local chapter of Mended Hearts is honored during the 12th annual Heart Ball, a black-tie fundraiser for the American Heart Association.

The event, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the Chattahoochee Country Club, will feature cocktails, dinner, entertainment and a silent auction. Tickets are $100 per person, and reservations are required.

Kasey Dillard, regional director for the Heart Association in Northeast Georgia, said proceeds help support research and education programs.

"The Heart Ball raised over $50,000 last year," she said. "It's one of our two major fundraisers, along with the Heart Walk in the fall."

Dillard believes the association's efforts are making a difference. "In 2000, we set a goal to reduce death and disability (from heart disease) by 25 percent before 2010, and we've already met that," she said.

Dave Palmer, spokesman for District 2 Public Health in Gainesville, confirmed that Georgia has seen a slight decline in the incidence of cardiovascular disease, which he attributes in part to prevention programs.

"We try our best to just keep pounding that message out there, about making lifestyle changes and eliminating risk factors such as obesity, poor diet, smoking and lack of activity," Palmer said.

Still, cardiovascular disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in Georgia. In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, heart disease and stroke killed 21,873 Georgians, resulted in about 142,000 hospitalizations, and cost the economy an estimated $9.8 billion.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Northeast Georgia Medical Center continues to do a brisk business in cardiac procedures. Yet Mended Hearts' small band of volunteers manages to visit just about every patient who comes through the program.

"They're committed to what they're doing," Allen said. "There's no doubt that they have empathy and compassion for the heart patients here."

That empathy comes from shared experience. Every Mended Hearts volunteer is a former heart patient or a spouse of one.

Peter Rocco, current president of the Hall County Mended Hearts chapter, began volunteering about three years ago. "I had recently retired and wanted to do something constructive," he said. "I had had triple bypass surgery 19 years ago, at age 44. I had a lot of questions at the time, and there was really no one to answer them."

Rocco said when volunteers visit a patient before a procedure, they introduce themselves and ask if the patient has any questions about what to expect. "(The patients') primary concern is if they're going to be able to have an active life after surgery," he said. "We tell them the truth. They will have to exercise and watch what they eat, and smoking is a definite no-no."

Postoperative visits, Rocco said, are different. "The fear and apprehension about the surgery are gone, and the patient is concentrating on getting well. Sometimes the patient is unable to speak, so we talk to family members. We try to be as positive and supportive as we can."

Even if the patient doesn't feel like talking, the volunteer will provide a phone number. "Many people get depressed after surgery, and they'll call us up later and want to talk," Rocco said.

Only a fellow heart patient, he said, can answer questions such as, "How long did it take before the pain went away?"

Allen said it also helps patients to be able to see someone who went through a major heart procedure and now looks healthy and fit. "These volunteers are great examples of how well people can do following these procedures," she said. "I know they have made a positive difference with our patients and family members, and we're very excited about having them honored at the Heart Ball."


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