Cardiac Rehab reunion brings former patients back to visit

On February 13, just a day before Valentine’s Day, the crowd assembled in the meeting rooms near our main lobby looked more like a celebrity had been spotted than a typical medical center meeting. There were hugs, laughter, smiles, introductions of spouses and lines of people waiting to have their picture made with the two stars of the day.

But it wasn’t a famous musician or movie star who was on our campus. It was WMC’s own rock stars Heather Leusink and Brandi McConnell, the founders of WMC’s Cardiac Rehab program.

Each year, during the American Heart Association’s Heart Month and coincidentally, Cardiac Rehab Week, Leusink and McConnell invite everyone who has gone through WMC’s cardiac rehab program to come back and visit.

Hundreds of grateful people show up each year to reminisce, give McConnell and Leusink one more hug and share stories of personal progress.

“These are my girls,” former patient Steve Sherrick of Franklin gushed about McConnell and Leusink. “They took care of everything. Aside from the actual physical rehab, they took care of me mentally. You meet people while you are going through rehab and it makes it like a social club. I come back to say hello every once in a while. It was just a wonderful experience.”

Many showed up proudly wearing their “I put my heart into Cardiac Rehab at Williamson Medical Center” T-shirts on and noshed on heart-healthy snacks while joking about when they were going to bring out the fried chicken.

Lou Scalise originally got to know McConnell and Leusink and the rest of the cardiac rehab staff when he brought his father-in-law to cardiac rehab here several years ago. Never did he imagine that he himself would come back for the same treatment.

“I had a heart event and had my surgery done at Vanderbilt,” he said. “But afterward I asked if I could do my rehab at Williamson. I said ‘I know exactly who I want to do my rehab and that’s Heather and Brandi’. This is probably my second or third reunion I’ve been to.”

The cardiac rehab program is in its eighth year and has had a consistent waiting list that has been as long as 70 people deep.

“The classes only have six people in them, so with small numbers like that meeting for 12 weeks everyone really gets to know each other,” Leusink said. “These people have all faced mortality, so I’d say 60 percent of the people who go through the program keep up with their healthy lifestyles. We have groups that continue to meet at the rec center or the Y and continue to work out together after the program.”

The cardiac rehab program consists of much more than just exercise, covering everything from lifestyle changes to diet, stress management, education on blood pressure and cholesterol and even a review and explanation of medications.

John Sullivan is retired, but volunteers at WMC and drives for EMS. He is also a former patient of the cardiac rehab program.

“I am surprised at how many people here I know and didn’t know they’d had a heart attack,” he said.