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Life Support

Heart disease survivors are giving back.

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The 30-year-old Central Virginia chapter, based in Richmond, provides scholarships to area nursing students; sponsors local children who have heart disease to visit Camp Mountain Heart in West Virginia, where they enjoy a medically supervised camping experience; and partners with the American Heart Association in its Save Lives Now program to place automated external defibrillators in local areas of high traffic, such as grocery stores and senior centers.

But the heart of the organization's good work is its visiting program, which connects heart disease survivors with heart patients to provide support, encouragement and education, for both the patients and their families.

Retired pharmacist Jerry Grossman, 66, was recovering from his second of three life-threatening events when his roommate, scheduled for bypass surgery the next morning, had a visit from a Mended Hearts volunteer. "When he left, the comments from the patient and his family members were how wonderful Mended Hearts is," Grossman says. "I started thinking that, hopefully, I'd get through this mess and maybe I should do something like that."

Hours are flexible, so volunteers see as few as five patients a week or as many as 40. But only about 20 percent of the 120 local members volunteer for the visiting program. "Most people don't want to visit strangers, and most of us have had enough of hospitals," Grossman says. "I do it because I love doing it. I know I'm helping people, and I've witnessed the miracles of technology and hope."

Volunteers are careful not to be intrusive. Visits usually last five to 10 minutes at first. Then volunteers share their phone numbers with patients.

The Richmond chapter's 23 local volunteers see about 2,400 patients a year at six Richmond hospitals, including VCU Medical Center. Hank Atkinson, chair of the visiting program, estimates that actual visits number as much as twice that amount. "Talking with families is a very important part of the program, too," Atkinson says. Mended Hearts volunteers nationally make 227,000 hospital visits to patients and 30,000 visits to family members each year, according to the organization.

After a patient leaves the hospital, volunteers e-mail, phone or make home visits. "[Patients] are scared to death," says Grossman, who describes the typical visit as being like a high school pep rally before a football game. "This is a fight against heart disease," he says. "We tell them they're going to win." Visitors share their own stories of survival, answer questions or just listen.

Patients often don't hear of Mended Hearts until a volunteer shows up at the hospital in the group's signature red vest. "Sometimes, they think I'm the pizza man," Grossman says. "Sometimes they think I've come from work at Target." Privacy laws preclude doctors from referring patients, but hospitals can inform Mended Hearts of scheduled surgeries. Given the truncated bedside manner that comes with HMOs, doctors like the program too. "They know we've traveled a similar path, and we understand their fears and pain."

Mended Hearts is looking for more volunteer visitors. Those who find face-to-face visits difficult can participate in phone or online visits. The only requirement is that you must be or have been a heart patient. Accreditation is simple: Keep current on procedures, medicines and technologies, and spend a few hours a year listening to knowledgeable speakers and experts in the field. Volunteers also meet to share strategies. "We talk about what you should and shouldn't say," Grossman says — "common sense things about visiting." S



Central Virginia Chapter 28 meets the first Tuesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. Membership fees are $17 per person or $24 per family. For more information about Mended Hearts' visiting program, call 1-888-HEART99.

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