Health News | Heart and Vascular | Therapy & Rehabilitation

Tanya Graham, a North Carolina native and Greenville resident, was outside cutting her grass when she started to feel very tired. That night, she experienced what felt like an asthma attack, so the next day she visited an urgent care clinic. “I do have asthma,” Graham shared, “but I’ve never had an attack.” The doctor ran a few more tests, and after an EKG, he decided to send Graham to the hospital.

“The car​diologist at [ECU Health] Medical Center said, ‘You are in heart failure,'” Graham said. “I didn’t know what he was saying, I was so shocked.”

Dr. W. Douglas Boyd, a cardiothoracic surgeon, told Graham she needed surgery, and two weeks later, Graham found herself back in the hospital recovering from a double coronary bypass. She was told later that her initial ejection fraction, which is the amount of blood your heart pumps each time it beats, had been 10 percent. A normal ejection fraction is 50 percent or higher. “After the surgery, they did another echocardiogram, and now it’s up to 35 percent,” Graham said.

Members of the ECU Health Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation team gather for a photo at their clinic.

Graham knew that once she was strong enough after the surgery, she wanted to participate in cardiac rehabilitation. She had heard about the option from her neighbor, who also had recently suffered a heart attack. “I also have two sisters who are nurses,” Graham shared. “One of them works for a cardiologist, so I talked with her about cardiac rehab, and all of my siblings agreed it was a good idea.”

Cardiac rehabilitation focuses on the “what now” after a cardiac event. Stacey Greenway, the director for cardiovascular disease management services at the Medical Center, hopes that cardiac rehab will become the immediate program associated with cardiac recovery.

“A multidisciplinary team works with the patients to establish and achieve goals to improve their health, quality of life and functional ability,” Greenway said. “We develop individualized treatment plans for each patient that includes exercise, nutrition, medications, stress management and other components.”

For Graham, therapy started slow, but she said she immediately felt comfort​able. “The team is so smart, and they are in tune with each individual person,” Graham said. “It made a huge difference because I learned right off that I could trust them. It made me want to go.”

It also helped to have others around her going through the same experience. “It didn’t matter if they were a man or woman or what race they were – we were all there for the same reason. Our bodies had broken in some way, and we were all there together for the same purpose of trying to survive and extend our lives,” Graham said. “I drew strength from them, because when I saw them working hard, it made me want to do the same.”

The experience didn’t just provide Graham with the chance to get stronger after a major surgery. “The one thing I came away with,” Graham said, “is hope. Hope that I’d live a longer life.” Graham said that it wasn’t just the exercise that encouraged her and helped her get better; it was also the classes they offered. “I learned quite a bit from the classes, which covered things like diet and coping with this diagnosis,” she said. Something Graham didn’t expect was having access to support from a therapist. “I’d had a hard experience with my surgery, so they put me in contact with Dr. Kari Kirian, and she worked wonders. I can’t say enough positive things about that experience.” Dr. Kirian is a cardiac psychologist embedded in the heart failure program – a critical member of the care team as it is not uncommon for patients to experience anxiety or depression after a cardiac event.

While she wished she could have participated for longer, Graham graduated from cardiac rehab with the ability to do the things she needs to do. “It allowed me to come home and do the things you take for granted, like clean the house or roll your hair,” Graham said. She also immediately joined a gym and signed up for personal training to continue her progress. “I left cardiac rehab on a Friday, and that following Monday I was at the gym,” Graham said. “It wasn’t mandated, but the cardiac rehab team provided me with information. My sister goes to a gym, so I decided to go there, and now I go every weekday. I will continue to exercise, think positive and eat right.”

Because she’s feeling so much better, Graham said she has plans for the future. “I’m going to work on making one of my bedrooms a storage space, and in the spring, I plan to paint a shed in the back yard,” Graham said. She also hopes to visit her daughter and grandchildren in Phoenix, Arizona next winter. In the meantime, Graham said she’s cleared it with her doctors to serve as a volunteer in the cardiac rehab unit. It’s one way she can share her experience and give back to the amazing Cardiac Rehab team for impacting her life in an incredible way.

“I don’t care what I do. I just didn’t want to leave there,” Graham said. “I love people, and I thought maybe if I was around people going through what I went through, I could tell them my story and help them.”