Spurred by her mom's illness, nurse works to help recovery of cardiac rehab patients
Ginny (right) and patient Dottie MacKeen
Ginny Dow grew up with an intimate glimpse into the challenges of a heart patient and how they must adapt their daily lives to deal with their condition.
Dorothy “Dotty” Paul – Ginny’s mother – had heart valve disease as a result of developing rheumatic fever as a child. While Dotty worked to keep her heart as healthy as possible with a low-salt, low-fat diet, she died at age 56.
Ginny was 30 at the time, and the experience left her with many lasting impressions, including what she describes as her calling to become a nurse.
“My mom used to say to me that she had great doctors, but the nurse is the one who helps you get better,” Ginny said.
Ginny began working as a nurse in 1978. She’s spent the last 24 years working in cardiac rehabilitation at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass.
Her mom’s condition, and her own experience as a young nurse in critical care, showed her the importance of cardiac rehab – a carefully monitored program that helps patients safely build strength and stamina, and helps them learn to make the lifestyle changes that can help them keep their heart as healthy as possible.
“My mom taught me to always leave a patient with hope,” Ginny said. “And cardiac rehab absolutely does that.”
Ginny loves teaching and getting exercise. In her role running the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Prevention Department, she gets to combine those with the clinical part of treating heart disease.
“Patients are so hungry for information after they’ve had a bypass or stent put in,” she said. “That’s what’s so rewarding.”
Ginny’s patients visit three times a week and work with a team that includes doctors, nurses, physical therapists, exercise physiologists and a dietician.
Patients learn how to exercise safely, which can be harder than it sounds. There’s a fine line between pushing themselves to get stronger and understanding the warning signs that they’ve done too much. She also works closely with the patient’s caregiver to identify ways to make healthy changes in diet and lifestyle.
“Here, we show people how they can change,” she said.
Ginny hopes to raise awareness about the importance of cardiac rehab, which is used by between 14 to 35 percent of patients who are eligible.
“We want people to feel confident that they can go back to their full life, but they need to make lifestyle changes to things that may have contributed to their condition,” she said.
Ginny said many of her patients are anxious when they begin cardiac rehab following a heart attack or other heart-related emergency. She works to show them how to work through their recovery and strengthen the heart safely.
“I had one patient who was shaking when we went to put her on a treadmill,” Ginny said. “People are scared to start exercise because they’re worried about what will happen with their heart.”
Ginny also is a longtime volunteer for the American Heart Association. (In fact, her mother’s cardiologist was Thomas Ryan, who was president of the organization from 1984-86.)
For nearly 10 years, Ginny has been active in local Go Red For Women efforts, attending an annual luncheon in Boston and speaking to groups of women on heart health issues. She has also participated in the Boston Heart Walk.
Ginny said she appreciates the work that AHA does in both research and consumer education. She regularly uses the Life’s Simple 7 campaign materials for health fairs and said she’s had patients tell her the AHA’s Go Red For Women campaign helped them recognize that they were having symptoms of a heart attack.
“I believe people need to have education about these issues,” Ginny said. “The more they learn, the more they can make healthy decisions.”
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