Phillips gets his heart pumping with assistance from Nurse Valerie Carroll and the team at NorthShore’s Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program.
Ed Phillips is now an impassioned advocate for a heart-healthy lifestyle, but it took a wake-up call in the form of a heart attack for him to change his ways.
Phillips’ father suffered a fatal heart attack at age 60. From the time he was 16, the younger Phillips was acutely aware of his own hereditary risk for heart disease, yet by his own admission he was for most of his life “a member of the clean plate club” and a yo-yo dieter with a sedentary lifestyle.
Last August, Phillips experienced unusual, though not intense, pain and a tightness in his chest and shoulders. He wasted no time in getting to the Emergency Department at NorthShore Glenbrook Hospital where he was admitted, and a cardiac exam revealed that he had indeed suffered a heart attack.
“Thankfully, it was not my father’s heart attack,” said 65-year-old Phillips. “The doctors told me I had no permanent damage to my cardiovascular system because I got to the hospital in the early stages where it could be controlled.”
Phillips’ heart attack was due to a piece of plaque that ruptured inside his coronary artery. An angiogram determined there was no need for surgery or stents, and Phillips’ prescription for recovery was medication, diet and exercise—a program he has whole-heartedly embraced.
Phillips credits the Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation team at NorthShore Evanston Hospital with giving him the confidence, guidance and knowledge to begin a steady, progressive exercise program and overhaul his diet. The experience has given him a brighter future and may be changing what once looked like his destiny.
About 60 pounds lighter than he was at the time of his heart attack, Phillips now walks and cycles almost daily and follows a healthy diet, a radical change from the way he used to eat.
“Now I am committed to it. When I make my schedule for each day, I start with ‘where is my time to exercise,’” said Phillips, who following retirement from a sales career launched a new business this year providing transportation and errand services for local seniors.
“It started with the encouragement and coaching in the rehab program. I never allowed myself to get into a denial routine, and I listened and did what they said,” Phillips said. “I took full advantage of the 12-week program.” Knowing he was under the supervision of nurses and rehab specialists who were monitoring his heart rate and blood pressure gave Phillips the confidence to gradually work harder, increasing speed and intensity without fear of hurting himself, he said.
Phillips lost 36 pounds during the 12 weeks of rehab and felt more fit than he had in 15 years. But the real success is the fact that nine months later he is still going strong, continuing to drop pounds and closing in on his total weight loss goal. He was able to retire a CPAP machine as his breathing during sleep returned to normal. The chronic pain in his ankles, knees and hips also disappeared.
Valerie Carroll, RN, Staff Nurse and Phillips’ primary coach, acknowledged that weight loss is generally the toughest lifestyle change for most people following a heart attack That is why the multidisciplinary, structured rehab program is such an important resource for those looking to improve their health and avoid another heart attack.
“We are an advocate for the patient. The rehab program itself reminds them of what happened and helps reinforce the desire to make their health a real priority,” Carroll said. “Valerie had such a positive attitude and was always encouraging, and willing to spend lots of one-on-one time with me, responding to all my questions,” Phillips said of Carroll. “At the end of the 12 weeks, I was concerned how I would keep the momentum going and she gave me a little tough love, pushing me out the door with positive feedback.”
Phillips also met with a dietitian as part of the program, who he said was immeasurably helpful in providing specific guidelines for a low-fat, low-sugar and low-sodium diet.
“We also work to help patients manage stress and try and support positive behavior changes,” Carroll said. “It is very gratifying to see people improving, having more energy and feeling good.”
“It’s more about changing your lifestyle than committing to a diet for a short period of time,” Phillips said. “For me, I can’t ever take my eye off the ball. I have to remain committed to the principles I learned in the program. It doesn’t mean that I can’t go out to dinner, but I know that I can’t just order anything off the menu. Food can’t be the reward; good health has to be the reward.”
Jason Robin, MD, a NorthShore-affiliated cardiologist who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, cares for Phillips. Dr. Robin credits diet, exercise and cholesterol-lowering medication with decreasing Phillips’ risk of another cardiac event by at least 50 percent.
“He’s doing this the right way,” Dr. Robin said. “Having a heart attack is no longer a death sentence or a guarantee that you’ll have another one. It’s a wake up call that things need to change.” The Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program is a safe environment for patients to get stronger. It heals their psyche as well, as many patients who have heart attacks start to experience anxiety or depression after their attack.
“If all of our other patients could have even 20 percent of Ed’s enthusiasm, we’d see far fewer heart attacks,” Dr. Robin added.