Rehab for Life

Despite studied benefits, heart patients missing out on life-saving program

Bob Alexander

It's not that he wasn't excited when he crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon. Few people could even imagine the overwhelming pride as Bob Alexander pumped his fists in the air, signaling the thrill of his accomplishment. But rather than take his hard-earned medal home to display for all of his friends to see, the Denver resident handed the award to a 3-year-old spectator. And not just because he loves kids.

The toddler was a survivor, a kindred spirit and symbol of what Alexander was running for: to remind fellow survivors that they aren't victims of heart disease. While Alexander's lifestyle is more extreme than most heart patients', he spreads the word that he wouldn't have finished a 26.2-mile race ten months after open-heart surgery if it weren't for cardiac rehabilitation.

The Important of Cardiac Rehabilitation

"They also saved my life," he says of his rehab team at Sky Ridge Medical Center. "They taught me how to listen to my body." Alexander, 56, learned about hydration, nutrition, stress-management and how to compete in his endurance events while keeping his heart safe, all things he would have never known without rehab, he says. But not everyone listens to Alexander's message.

More than 1 million Americans survive a heart attack in this country every year, a small fraction of the number of people stricken by heart disease, the nation’s No. 1 killer of both men and women. Government data show that less than 35 percent of those heart-attack survivors attend cardiac rehabilitation, despite evidence that they should. American Heart Association guidelines recommend rehab, and many studies, including a recent one by the Mayo Clinic, find it boosts survival rates (as much as 45 percent for stent patients).

About Cardiac Rehab

"Cardiac rehab programs help patients recovering from a heart attack or other heart problems to rebuild their lives, both physically and emotionally," says Keith Terrio, an exercise physiologist with The Medical Center of Aurora's rehab program. "Patients are educated on how to healthily achieve necessary changes to reduce future heart problems."

While patients may experience barriers such as cost and work schedule, Terrio stresses the options available to patients for rehab programs. "The Medical Center of Aurora’s Phase III supervised exercise program only costs $5.50 per session," Terrio says. "Our goal is to help patients make exercise a permanent part of their lifestyle."

Bob Alexander's Story

In 2009, Alexander was diagnosed—more than half way through his life—with a heart-valve defect that was present at birth. During testing for that problem, he also learned that he had a dangerous ventricular arrhythmia that could have killed him during any of his previous endurance events. "Doctors couldn’t believe I’d gone that long. Just like that, I went from an endurance athlete to a heart patient," says Alexander, who has a wife and three adult children.

After having open-heart surgery to repair the valve, and starting a beta-blocker regimen to control the arrhythmia, Alexander had moments of depression and doubt that he would return to life as he knew it. "It's too hard to talk about," he says, choking up. But then inspiration, largely from his wife, set in, and his rehab specialists did their job. "They teach you how to exercise while you are hooked up to an EKG, so you're safe," says Alexander. "They help you build back your strength and then teach you how to take all of their information and go forward."

Benefits of Cardiac Rehab

There's also a psychological benefit to rehab for heart patients, says Dr. Joan Eldridge, Alexander’s cardiologist. "All-of-the-sudden, they face mortality, and most people take their health for granted. In cardiac rehab, you have people who have faced the same thing, so you don't feel so alone." Stress, depression and anxiety resulting from heart disease are some of the many topics discussed in a lifelong cardiac support group," Terrio says. "I’ve seen the diagnosis of heart disease save lives because it motivates patients to make a permanent lifestyle change."

Alexander, who has to walk/run now when he does footraces or slow down on his bike if his heart rate gets to a certain point, isn't giving up. He had just finished the Leadville 100 (a 100-mile race) this summer and is planning on breaking a world distance record on the treadmill next. "I'm going to continue to do endurance events, and I'm going to raise awareness for children and adults and give them hope," Alexander says. "Just because you have a limitation doesn’t mean you can’t fulfill your dreams."


Cardiac Rehab Benefits

  • Regain heart health
  • Reduce risk of second cardiac event
  • Feel better
  • Reduce stress
  • Sleep better
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Boost quality of life
  • Reduce hypertension

Keith Terrio, rehab specialist, The Medical Center of Aurora


Women & Heart Disease

50% Number of women surveyed who knew heart disease was the leading cause of death in women.

13% Number of women surveyed who said heart disease was their greatest health risk. (Women still worry more about breast cancer, even though heart disease kills six times as many women every year.)

(American Heart Association)