This past June, Dennis Vecchiarello of Billerica arrived at Lowell General Hospital by ambulance with shortness of breath and chest pain. He was immediately brought into the cardiac catheterization lab where he was stabilized, but due to an underlying valve condition, the cardiologists advised he needed open heart surgery. He was soon transferred to Tufts Medical Center, where he underwent a triple bypass and valve replacement.
Vecchiarello was aware that surgery may be on the horizon someday, as previous testing had revealed a moderate heart valve murmur. He wasn’t prepared for how he would feel after the surgery as he worked to overcome extreme weakness and fatigue.
“I remember when I came home I only had six stairs to climb up to get into my house, and it took every ounce of energy to get up those six stairs,” he says. “I had no idea what I was in for because I had never been sick to this extent before.”
Dr. Brian Cullingford of Merrimack Valley Cardiology says it can take up to 3 months to recover from open heart surgery, and Vecchiarello’s post-surgical symptoms are very common.
Vecchiarello’s recovery at home included regular appointments with visiting nurses and physical therapists. But when he went to see Dr. Cullingford for a follow-up stress test, he was asked if he’d like to try Lowell General’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program to help get him back on his feet.
“I was having such a difficult time with ordinary things around the house,” said Vecchiarello. “Just getting up from a chair, or wheeling a trash barrel out to the sidewalk was exhausting – I just didn’t know where I was going to go from here. So I said, why not?”
That, he said, was one of the best decisions he ever made.
“I started Cardiac Rehab the second week in August – and it was all uphill after that.”
Vecchiarello attended the program three days a week for 12 weeks. During exercise, he wore a heart monitor and was under the supervision of cardiac nurses, exercise physiologists and respiratory therapists.
“Before I started there my energy levels were really low and my strength was about a 3 out of 10,” said Vecchiarello. “Everyone there, they really believe in what they do; you can tell. They make you confident that whatever you do there, you can do back at home. They are running a heck of a program.”
Now he has incorporated all the exercises he learned at cardiac rehabilitation into his routine, and credits the department staff there for helping him feel better than he has in years.
“This may sound very strange, but that heart attack was the best thing that happened to me. For the past 2-3 years I’ve been fighting symptoms, and no matter what I did, felt like I was just getting nowhere fast. Now, I’m sleeping better, I can go out 2-3 times a day and do stuff – I haven’t felt this good in years.”