Life can be daunting for patients preparing to undergo or recovering from heart surgery but Mended Hearts, a local hospital volunteer group, is dedicated to making such life-saving procedures a more peaceful experience for patients at Christus Ochsner St. Patrick Hospital and Lake Charles Memorial Hospital.

The group is comprised of members who are care-takers or survivors of heart procedures. Their first-hand experience allows them to relate to hospital patients with a unique empathy that aids in their healing process.

“We just share with them, ‘We’ve been there. We know what it’s like to be anxious.’ But with the procedures that we’ve had, hopefully you’re going to live a more full life,” said Mike Richard, a 12-year member.

Like many of the volunteers, Richard learned about the organization when a volunteer visited him after his first heart attack in 2004. “I wanted to pay it forward and I’ve been doing this ever since,” he said.

A survivor of multiple heart attacks, he said he never felt afraid through any of his hospital stays. During his first visit to the emergency room he simply prayed, “Lord, I need some Scripture. I need some help.” At that moment, three Scriptures came to him along with peace.

He said he now tries to share that same peace with others as he visits hospital rooms on a weekly basis. Anxiety, fear and depression are common emotions patients face — especially the fear of the unknown, he said.

“You have to kind of relieve those fears ... I try to share with others, ‘You’re put here for a purpose. God’s got a purpose.’ ”

Richard said the opportunity to receive life-saving medical care is truly a “gift” that he reminds patients to treasure.

He said he never tries to shove religion onto patients as the organization is not faith-based, but he does try to offer hope through listening or prayer when accepted.

“It’s just that you have to have hope,” he said. “They are in recovery and it may take some time. We just try to say, ‘We’ve done it. You can do it. You’ve been given a gift.’ ”

Helen Budge, a 19-year member, joined the group with her husband, whom she cared for through a variety of cardiovascular ailments. They learned of the group from a local doctor who presented hands-on opportunities to learn more about the medical technology involved in common procedures.

“He passed around the stents, let all of the people feel them, look at them and then he told us how whenever they put it in they use a balloon on it to blow it up. He explained it all,” she said.

Explaining various parts of heart recovery is an important part of Mended Hearts volunteers’ mission. They do not offer medical advice or questions, but they do help get patients in touch with qualified staff who can assist.

The group is invited to regular meetings with local doctors to learn new procedures or research into healthy living. Then, they freely share the information with patients they visit.

“If we don’t know the answer, we find an answer so we can satisfy the patient,” Budge explained.

The ability to relate to those in hospital rooms extends beyond individual patient contact to include other family members who are affected by a loved one’s hospitalization.

Budge described how a Beaumont, Texas, truck driver on his way home was rushed to a Lake Charles hospital after a cardiac episode at a local truck stop. Upon arrival it was determined he needed open heart surgery.

Alone, in an unfamiliar city, the driver’s wife was filled with worry when Budge entered the room. “When I walked in the lady said, ‘God sent me an angel.’ I looked around to see where it was but it was me!” she recalled.

The wife had been awake all night praying that someone would come in and give her sound information.

“I couldn’t tell her from experience, because I hadn’t had any heart problems, but my husband had it all,” she said. “She thanked us so much. In fact, I didn’t think she was going to let us leave.”

In the course of nearly two decades with the group, she said, “The person who is visiting, they get as much out it as the patient gets.”

Agnes Vaughn underwent open heart surgery 41 years ago, has had 10 stents inserted and a pacemaker. “I’m still going strong!” she said smiling.

She credits her strength to identifying and adopting a healthy lifestyle despite ever-changing and fad diets. “Fresh fruit, vegetables and very little fried foods,” she explained.

Advice like Agnes’ is among that given to each patient when they interact with a Mended Heart volunteer. Lake Charles’s Chapter 18 is one of more than 200 chapters who operate within hospital across the country.

In addition to their friendly and compassionate weekly visits, they provide patients with a “Heart Guide” which details how to live heart-healthy in their path to recovery. Chapter 18 meets monthly at Christus Ochsner St. Patrick Hospital and Lake Charles Memorial Hospital on alternating months.

For more information on how to join Mended Hearts contact the volunteer coordinator at Christus Ochsner St. Patrick Hospital at 431-7941 or Lake Charles Memorial Hospital volunteer director at 494-2493.

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