Cardiac patients take heart on skis
“Is anyone going to time our runs to see who wins?” a gentleman asks.”Let me tell you, if you’re standing vertical, you’re a winner,” a woman quickly responds.That seemed to be the consensus yesterday morning as around 25 patients who have defied age, expectation and near death gathered at the gondola plaza for a day of skiing and celebrating on Aspen Mountain. Yesterday was the fourth annual cardiac rehabilitation ski day, an event organized for patients of Aspen Valley Hospital who have recovered from either a heart attack, a bypass surgery or both.
No one would mistake this group for an X Games squad; their skis are straight, their hair silver, their full-body suits some shade of pastel. One of the group coordinators jokes that the suits, and maybe even the skiers, belong in a museum.But these are extreme skiers of a different sort – pushing the limits of health, old age and weak hearts to make it down the mountain.”Today is really a celebration, of both our patients’ dedication and the success of our program,” AVH exercise physiologist Julie Puchkoff says. “There’s not many cardiac rehab departments that take their patients to 10,000 feet to ski.”Each member of the group has been cleared by the hospital cardiologist to ski. It’s a reward for months of hard work. Rehab classes meet three times a week and the majority of the class time is spent sweating on exercise equipment. The heart is a muscle; for these patients a weak one in need of strengthening.”After about three months in rehab, we evaluate the patients and set a home-exercise program for them,” director of cardiac rehab Melody Durham says. “The patients here today are the ones who were given the all-clear.”
Aspen Mountain seems a strange, forbidding choice for the group, but they display the attitude that led them here in the first place – “Buttermilk is for babies,” one skier explains. Many of the patients ski on their own four or five days a week. Even so, the group was told not to venture off the groomed runs. When you’ve got a corduroy scar traversing down your chest, as many of these skiers do, it’s best to stay on the corduroy snow.Most of the patients are older men. But there are some surprise faces in the group. Erik Shelton, indistinguishable from the host of ski-bums loafing around the plaza, was an otherwise healthy 31-year-old when he suffered a heart attack last fall. He had a congenital heart condition he knew nothing about until it landed him in an intensive care unit for four days. Like everyone in the group, it was a strenuous journey from hospital bed to the base of Aspen Mountain.”I set the record at the cardiac clinic,” he says proudly. “I walked 115 floors on the Stairmaster in seven minutes. That’s a record I think will probably hold up, unless some 20-year-old decides to have a heart attack.”Like it has been for poets for centuries, the heart for these patients is more than just a crucial organ. Heart attack and bypass surgery survivors almost invariably suffer depression during recovery. “When you have some sort of insult to the heart, how could it not impact your outlook on life and yourself,” Durham says.
For the patients, the class is good for their hearts in many different ways. Common pain leads to camaraderie. Friendships have formed. Yesterday was one of many social gatherings throughout the year – dances and golf events are other popular events. For these patients, rediscovering a love for life is at the heart of their success.”Most of the other skiers we know from our rehab classes,” Beate Block, whose husband is also in the program, says. “I guess you could say it’s a family of sorts.”After a morning on the slopes, the group met for lunch at the Sundeck restaurant. Chicken breasts, stir-fried vegetables, a glass of red wine – there were no bacon cheeseburgers here. The group laughed, shared stories from the day, enjoyed the sensation of being around the health and ruddiness of fellow skiers.They may not be skiing like they used to. But they are skiing. And they are staying vertical. And that’s a heart-warming success.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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