Dr. Paul Oh
The Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation Program at Rumsey Centre helps cardiac rehab patients like Jo Meingarten, pictured here with Dr. Paul Oh, Medical Director of the Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation Program at UHN, recover with the help of both in-person and virtual rehab programs. (Photo: The KITE Research Institute at UHN)

In the summer of 2017, Jo Meingarten was at work when she suddenly felt severe, painful pressure in her chest. Because she was healthy and had no risk factors for cardiovascular illness, she didn't immediately seek help – it took the urging of a friend to get her to visit a local Emergency room. It was a good thing she did: Jo was diagnosed with a heart attack and admitted to hospital.

She was ultimately diagnosed with takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a condition where acute emotional stress puts severe strain on the heart and weakens its ability to pump blood.

Fortunately, over the course of several months the condition reversed itself – it doesn't always – but the scare was a sign that Jo, who lives in Toronto, needed to change her lifestyle. Her doctor urged her to consider participating in a six-month cardiac rehab program at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute's Rumsey Centre, where healthcare providers help patients change their lifestyle to reduce the risk of another cardiac event.

Jo wasn't looking forward to it. "I'm the type of person who would always choose reading a book over doing just about anything else," she says. She's always associated exercise with, well, suffering. But Jo knew that her lack of exercise was catching up with her.

At the first session, which occurred about six months after her visit to the Emergency room, a rehab doctor conducted a stress test, where she walked on a treadmill while her blood pressure, heart rate and her heart's electrical rhythms were measured. The medical staff wanted to determine how much she could exercise before her heart started pumping abnormally. From there, her team created a personalized exercise program – "you get a 'prescription' based on their knowledge of what would benefit you the most, as well as what you'd be most likely to maintain in the long run," explains Jo.

After a couple of walking sessions – she had one every week – her Toronto Rehab exercise specialist, Lauren Jenkinson, who was monitoring her heart rate, gently prodded her to pick up the pace a little.

To Jo's surprise, the power walking wasn't as difficult as she had feared, and, surrounded by people who had gone through similar health scares and wanted to transform their own health, she started to feel that it was something she could incorporate into her life. Over the next six months, she learned more about nutrition, how stress affects the body, and the importance of aerobic and resistance exercise.

"I learned that exercise doesn't have to be oppressive to improve the working of your heart," she says.

Too many patients don't join rehab or stick with it. As Jo found out, rehab works. Studies show that cardiac patients who complete rehab are 25 per cent less likely to die in the five years after their cardiac event, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, compared to those who don't go to rehab. There are numerous other benefits as well.

"It reduces the chance that you'll land back in the hospital, and it improves your quality of life," explains Dr. Paul Oh, Medical Director of the Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation Program at UHN.

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