This is my third week of cardiac rehab, the first time I brought Red – a certified therapy dog – to one of the rehab sessions. He was his usual remarkable self, greeting people who wanted to be greeted – this was everyone – and keeping a close eye on me, as he has since I came home from the hospital on July 4. I was reluctant to undergo cardiac rehab, I still am uncertain about it, but I am still going, three times a week, and I am definitely getting something worthwhile from it.
When I arrive at 1:30, a nurse or physical therapist takes my blood pressure and hooks me up to a heart monitor (I remember them from the hospital) and my heartbeat pops up on a big computer screen along with the other rehab patients. The nurse goes over my medications, asks me how I feel, how things are going. It is an easy place to be, but in some ways, a hard place to be, a sad place to have to be.
Do I belong here, I keep asking? Is this really me?
There are so many people in the room who are much sicker than me, it is humbling and offers perspective and makes me grateful for what I have. I see some of them struggling to do just a few minutes on the bike, or five minutes on the treadmill and I root for them. They are cheerful, friendly, generous, they are all rooting for me.
It is awkward sometimes being well known. They have figured out who I am, what I do, they are bring in books for their daughters and sons to have signed, they tell me about their dogs, their donkeys, they read my blog. At first, this made me uncomfortable, I felt conspicuous, embarrassed, but now I am just one of the rehab patients, we are all in it together.
Red was a big hit, everyone kept smiling, Red has a genius for knowing how to behave, even in this room crowded with beeping and whirring machines, people on walkers and in wheelchairs. He is welcome any time, I was told, I liked having him follow me from machine to machine – he has become a guard dog – and sitting down while I do my work. Red and I have been to the hospital together, he has visited there as a therapy dog, he seems to know exactly what to do.
Basically, I am doing three things in cardiac rehab. I am turning a resistance wheel to strengthen my upper body and challenge the heart, pumping on a pedal machine for 20 minutes to strengthen my legs and get my heart working hard, and then 20 more minutes on a treadmill that gets harder and faster every week. The nurses come around with a card asking me to number the degree of difficulty – one is easy, 10 is the hardest. They take my blood pressure during each exercise, and they watch the heart monitor closely. If the exercise gets very hard to do, if I go above six or seven, they will stop me. That hasn't happened yet. In addition to cardiac rehab three times a week, I am walking once or twice a day. On rehab days I walk once, in the morning. Otherwise twice, for four or five miles.
Three or four times a week, or when it rains, I do 20 to 30 minutes on a stationary bike. I feel good, my periods of exhaustion are getting shorter and less frequent, I am handling the medications well generally.
I was happy to bring Red to rehab, I confess it is still hard for me to go. Sometimes I get depressed being there and seeing the brave and good people struggling so hard. The nurse asked me if I was liking it today, not yet, I said, but I am not disliking it as much as I thought. It is a pleasure to have you here, she said.
I did 20 minutes working my arms, 25 minutes on the pedal bike, 23 minutes minutes on the treadmill. They made me stop, my heartbeat was rising a bit. No need to push things, they said. They should only know. It is a lonely feeling, being there. They try and foster a sense of collegiality and community there, but we are all very different, not in the same place. Yet we are, all working hard to get healthier. Some of the people around me work so hard, it seems so difficult for them, so much of an uphill battle.
I have learned a lot in cardiac rehab, about my heart, how it works, how much it can handle, how I am progressing. It is easy to talk to the nurses, they are much easier to talk to than doctors and I learn more from them. Cardiac rehab goes on for three months, I don't know if I will last that long, or if I need to. For now, I feel I belong there, it is helping me heal and recover, I am stronger and healthier than I have been for a long time, and I will continue working hard every single day to get stronger and healthier yet.
I am loving walking, it is never a chore for me, and my legs are growing stronger all the time. My heart also.