Mended Hearts Chapter 165 members, from left, Betty Foster, Sam Foster and Nancy Askey, chapter president, meet on the 4th Monday night of each month in the Conference Room at Phoebe Northwest on Dawson Road. February is recognized throughout the U.S. as National Heart Month.
ALBANY, Ga. — As a result of the multiple seminars and national conventions Sam and Betty Foster have attended, they are perhaps among the most educated people in the Albany area on heart disease who don't have a medical degree.
That knowledge came at a price.
In 2000, Sam Foster — now the membership chairman of the Albany chapter of Mended Hearts — ended up having emergency open-heart surgery after coming to terms with the fact that he was in real danger of having a heart attack.
"I had to make him go to his family physician," said Betty Foster, his wife and treasurer of the chapter. "I've had four people in my family who have had heart problems.
"Sam was having pain in his right shoulder. At 4:45 p.m. that day, he said he was told he didn't have a heart problem and was going to get an x-ray. I picked up the phone and called the nurse and told her that he does have a heart problem and I was bringing him back in the morning."
Understandably, the doctor and nurse were upset, since she had not given the nurse a chance to say anything or make an appointment. The doctor remained insistent that it was not a heart problem until it was uncovered that Sam Foster had been undergoing some stress.
"When it was evident he was undergoing stress, an appointment was made for a stress test and catheterization," Betty Foster said. "The doctor came to me when he finished the catheterization and said that he had already admitted him (to the hospital) because if they didn't get to him before the heart attack hit, they wouldn't be able to save him."
As it turned out, Sam Foster almost had a full blockage in two arteries, indicating that he was close to having an attack. He later went through surgery and rehabilitation.
While in the hospital, he was visited by a Mended Hearts volunteer — and was able to learn about the organization. The Fosters joined the group the following year.
Working as a morale support group for heart patients, family members and caregivers, Mended Hearts established a presence in Albany in February 1984 with the help of Albany cardiologist Dr. Jeffery Hoopes. Outside of their monthly meetings, the members visit patients on the fourth floor of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital every afternoon — except for Sundays.
With many of the Mended Hearts members being former heart patients themselves, the goal of these patient visits is to remind those staying on Phoebe's cardiac floor that — despite the circumstances that placed them in the hospital — there is still potential for a rewarding life.
The visits, done on a rotating basis with hospital and physician approval or referral, are conducted by a group of nine volunteers in the group who are specifically trained and accredited by Mended Hearts.
There are roughly 10-15 patients who the volunteers, clad in red vests, will see in a day based on a list made up by the nurses of people staying on the floor for that day.
After their stay in the hospital is over, the patients are usually followed up with by Mended Hearts via the group's newsletter and phone call.
The visits have potential to do good, especially with the mood changes that come with that kind of experience.
"They all do suffer a type of depression," Betty Foster said. "There is a personality change after the heart has been worked on. If I find them crying (during a visit), I try to make them smile before I leave.
"They act like they are absorbing (the information). When Sam goes in and says, 'I know what you are going through,' they light up."
Aside from giving patients a kindred spirit to lean on, the visits also give patients an educational opportunity via an informational packet that is given to each patient, as well as recommendations for a healthy lifestyle and managing the day-to-day recovery process.
"When I talk to the heart patients, I encourage them to go to rehab," Sam Foster said.
Such knowledge is sometimes supplemental to what the physicians and nurses provide.
"They come in and are very involved in sharing their experiences," said Lori Eubanks, cardiology director at Phoebe. "They are able to share their experience and help them, and after the patient is discharged they are given an opportunity to join (Mended Hearts).
"It helps anxieties. They talk to them about their surgeries and help answer questions. It does a lot of good to hear someone that has gone through it."
The volunteers are also able to go beyond the medical aspect, providing a perspective the hospital's staff may be unable to give.
"Mended Hearts relates it more on a personal basis," Eubanks said. "There is no way physicians or nurses can share that experience unless they have been through it themselves.
"We do patient rounds every day. They (the patients) do talk about it and how it has helped. I think it impacts them positively. I think it enhances what we do."
If nothing else, it makes meeting the patients' needs a lot easier.
"I can't imagine not having Mended Hearts," the cardiology director said. "Something detrimental has to happen for them not to show up."
At the Mended Hearts monthly meetings, there are opportunities for both fellowship and education. There are different speakers who come in, and the members — roughly 70 in number now — will squeeze in a game of Bingo every once in a while.
The activities the group conducts also include annual dinners and picnics. While most of the Mended Hearts members are former heart patients, that is not the only thing that qualifies a person to be a member. Some are caregivers or family members, Sam Foster said.
Nancy Askey, the Albany chapter's president, has been involved with the group for 25 years, both as a Mended Hearts member — the wife of a bypass patient — and as a cardiac nurse at both Phoebe and the former Palmyra Medical Center.
"We rely on our own personal experiences (when speaking to patients)," she said. "We are not allowed to give advice, just support.
"We work a lot with the caregivers because they go through what the patient goes through, except for the surgery."
On occasion, the volunteers may see something in the patient — such as mood swings — that warrants a follow-up recommendation to the medical staff.
In turn, the medical staff will do the same.
"We've had calls to come in and talk to those in denial," Askey said. "Our main goal is to support each other and help those newly diagnosed."
Members of the general public can visit a meeting without an obligation to join, Sam Foster said.
The Online Analytical Statistical Information System (OASIS), a database maintained by the Georgia Department of Public Health, shows that in 2010 — the most recent year for which data was available — there were 314 deaths within the 14-county Southwest Public Health District from obstructive heart disease.
In that year, Colquitt County — at 63 fatalities — had the highest number of deaths. Dougherty County came in the No. 2 spot at 49 deaths, followed by Thomas County with 44 deaths.
Mended Hearts meets on the fourth Monday of the month at 7:30 p.m. at Phoebe Northwest on Dawson Road. For more information, contact the Fosters at (229) 436-7140.