Doctors emphasize importance of cardiac rehab after heart attacks

As a former marathon runner, mostly on a vegan diet, Joel Erickson is not the healthy type most would expect to have a heart attack at 46 years old.

“I'll admit it, I googled 'What's the heart attack arm?' [It said] the left  arm...oh no.  I was like it can't be that it can't be that,” said Erickson.

Erickson was having a heart attack last year, with 100 percent blockage in the artery known as the widow maker. He is thankful for the stint put in to save his life and he quickly took doctor’s advice to start cardio rehab. For many patients, cardiopulmonary helps start an exercise routine, improve diet and lifestyle. For Erickson, wearing heart monitors during workouts helps regain his confidence. 

“I was scared,” said Erickson. “That's what I needed. I was walking gingerly, but my wife and I are like 'Are you ok?' I'm like 'I think so?'"

Despite Erickson’s willingness to participate, a recent study points out treadmills at the rehab center are never full. Only about 60 percent of cardiac patients eligible for this program finish all the sessions, even though doctors have proof it can reduce cardiac death by up to 30 percent.

“It's amazing if people complete all the sessions, they have the lowest mortality and lowest readmission rate,” said Regions Cardio Rehab medical Director, Dr. Bill Nelson. “The fact that each session can decrease readmission rate by 2 percent was just really a startling finding.”

Dr. Nelson believes nationwide not enough emphasis is put on the importance of cardiac rehab, which Erickson sees as part safety net and part social therapy.

“We all have the same stories, whether we are the same age or 20 years apart,” said Erickson. “When I first got back to running, all of a sudden everyone in the class was like 'Joel, you’re running!' I was like 'Yes!'”

This and other cardiac rehab clinics are covered by insurance, including Medicaid. While they have been around for decades, Dr. Nelson points out the program also helps monitor medications for patients. As one of the few people to complete the program over the years, Erickson is cheering on and hoping to inspire others.

“I know I have some work to do to get back in shape again,” said Erickson. “I'm not broken forever.”