Benefis Cardiac Rehab a Work of Heart

As she completed an exercise circuit at Benefis Cardiac Rehabilitation, Linda Larson celebrated “another day, another heartbeat.”

She’s learned not to take those beats for granted after developing heart issues that required open-heart surgery in August.

Linda was often short of breath, and her husband, Ken, recommended she talk the matter over with her doctor, who did a heart ultrasound. Linda was diagnosed with blocked arteries and valve problems.

Before she could undergo surgery, Linda suffered another kind of heartbreak as Ken, 70, succumbed to cancer.  They had been married for 43 years.

Just six weeks after losing Ken, Linda went ahead with open-heart surgery. A double bypass fixed the blockage, and the increased flow took care of her valve issues.

As she recovered in intensive care, Linda developed atrial fibrillation, or A-Fib, an irregular, often too-fast heartbeat that can have serious consequences. Then she had an adverse reaction to the medication used to treat the A-Fib.

linda larson

Linda recalled thinking, “I should just die. I could go see Ken again.”

The sounds of her daughters sobbing cut through her thoughts. She turned away from the lure of letting go as Michael Nagel, RN, stabilized her heart.

“Nurse Mike saved my life,” she said. “The ICU was the most wonderful place in my life. I could not have asked for better care.” 

February is American Heart Month, an occasion that has been reminding Americans to join the battle against heart disease for the past 57 years. The week of February 9-15 is National Cardiac Rehab Week.

For Linda, the surgery was a beginning of a new, heart-healthy chapter even as she lives with broken-heartedness from losing Ken, something “I’ll be working on for the rest of my life.”

The Benefis mission is to "provide excellent care for all, healing body, mind, and spirit.”

Our approach in Cardiac Rehab also is three-fold: designing an exercise training program accounting for medical history and physical limitation, providing education to help patients make lifestyle changes that support recovery, and offering emotional support and stress reduction tools to help patients cope with the emotional side of healing.

“I wanted to quit sometimes because I got really sad,” Linda said. “Pam said no.”

Pam Crisp, the Cardiopulmonary Rehab Coordinator, also lost her husband and helped Linda find a grief counselor, who has helped Linda adjust to her new reality.

At cardiac rehab, Linda, like all participants, wears a heart monitor that feeds into a central station where nurses can monitor heart activity. Linda makes an hour-long circuit through the exercise machines, walking route, and stretches.

She was nervous at her first day of cardiac rehab and brought her grandson along.

Shawn Strunk, a cardiac rehabilitation RN, taught her the routine.

“He is so kind and helpful,” Linda said. “There’s not a day that goes by where people here don’t help me. They are fabulous. They encourage you, and you think, ‘I can do this.’”

At rehab, she listens to others’ stories of their own heart health journeys. She’s found support among the other patients.

“There’s not a day that goes by where the people here don’t help me. They are fabulous.”

–Linda Larson

Linda has lost 10 pounds on a whole food diet. Her daughters take her for walks, and her two grandchildren who are nurses frequently monitor her blood pressure and oxygen levels.

“It’s a challenge as your whole life changes. I have a beautiful family, and I couldn’t have gone through this without them,” she said. “It would have been easier with Ken, but I don’t have him.”

Linda said the strength she’s gained has been amazing. The 69-year-old retiree can see her progress in her new ease climbing the stairs at home.

“I should have been doing this my whole life,” she said.