Metro Health expands cardiac health program


Ellen Macalpine, right, clinical dietitian for Metro Health-University of Michigan’s cardiac rehab program, helps patients maintain a healthy lifestyle. Courtesy Metro Health

Metro Health-University of Michigan Health is in the first year of an expanded cardiac rehab program that includes a focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The health system’s cardiovascular rehabilitation center was expanded in February into a 5,000-square-foot space complete with varied exercise equipment and a kitchen with weekly classes on healthy cooking.

The program is based on the Pritikin Intensive Cardiac Rehab model. Metro Health is the only hospital in West Michigan and second in the state to offer the Pritikin model, which is covered by Medicare.

In the program, which most patients do for three or four months, patients exercise and attend classes three days a week and have one-on-one meetings with their care teams the other two days.

After 50 minutes of structured, monitored exercise, groups of 16 patients spend 45 minutes in class, which includes videos on health and risk reduction for one day. Pritikin-certified cooking classes take place on another day.

The classes provide an overview of a healthy eating plan and grocery lists, cookware essentials, simple substitutions for healthier recipes, hints on how to address barriers to healthy eating and cooking instructions and recipes.

The grocery list includes items found at Family Fare, Meijer and Trader Joe’s, with special notes and recommended brands.

After patients have achieved their goals, established in consultation with the cardiologists and the rehab staff, patients graduate to a maintenance program.

Each graduate receives a “Heart of Gold” T-shirt, and their names are added to the heart-healthy honor roll.

Patients can begin the program immediately after being diagnosed with a heart condition. Rehab patients range in age from 21 to 96, and 53 have graduated since the program began. 

Melissa Cook, the cardiac rehab program director, said patients often become good friends, and a few romances have even blossomed during and after the program.

During its expanded hours of 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, the rehab facility sees 128 patients a day for exercise, education and monthly meetings with a cardiologist.

The program is staffed by six exercise physiologists, a nurse and a dietician, all supervised by cardiologist Dr. Barbara Karenko and nine other cardiologists.

The cardiac rehab program is part of Metro Health’s newly expanded heart and vascular facility.

Cook said cardiac rehab is relatively new to Metro Health; the health system formerly contracted outside companies to work with its patients in that area.

With a master’s degree in cardiac rehab, Cook said she pushed to launch a program at Metro Health. With approval from the executive leadership team, she opened a program in February 2017 in the existing space.

Earlier this year, the expansion included a build-out and a transition from what was considered a traditional cardiac rehab program into an “intensive cardiac rehab program,” she said.

Patients in a traditional cardiac rehab setting focus on the exercise portion only, not the education piece, she said. “Which is extremely important because if the patients aren't educated, they're right back through the door,” Cook said.

Many hospitals don’t have such programs because they’re often not financially feasible, Cook said, but a $102,000 grant from the Metro Health Hospital Foundation allowed the Pritikin program to be established at Metro.

Karenko said committing to a comprehensive rehab program is just as important to recovery as medical treatment and can lead to a healthier and happier life. Metro Health cited studies that have shown people who complete a cardiovascular rehab program can increase life expectancy by up to five years.

Cook said, oftentimes, doctors just tell cardiac patients to reduce sodium and eat healthy foods. 

“The problem is they just didn't know where to start and they didn't know how to begin until we really give them those tools to help them achieve those goals,” Cook said.

Besides maintaining a healthy diet and exercise program, the program particularly likes to highlight the negative impacts of tobacco use and stress.

“I think a lot of our lifestyle choices stem from either habit or we just do what we were brought up on,” Karenko said. “So, it takes a lot of effort to make those changes, and if there's anything that we can do to help patients do that, then it's something that we want to promote.”

Though maybe people’s daily lives don’t provide much free time to cook elaborate meals, she said patients will learn about healthier options that are quick and convenient. 

Karenko said she always talks to patients about household habits and being a positive example for children, whether it’s about food, smoking or inactivity. 

“I always talk to them about how they are their own children's best or most important role models and that their kids are observing what they're doing every day,” Karenko said. “If you model those healthy habits, then your children will also do so because it's just normal life for them.”

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