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Mended Hearts offers bypass patients a hand

It’s possible that when many of us hear the name, Mended Hearts, Inc., we may think that it is an organization whose aim is to offer advice to the lovelorn, to those who have been unlucky in love and to those who are trying to mend broken hearts.

Mended Hearts’ sole purpose, however, is to offer hope to heart disease patients and to boost the morale of those who are about to have, or have already had, open-heart by-pass surgery.

Backed by financial support from the American Heart Association, Mended Hearts recruits volunteers to visit hospital patients on a one-on-one role and provide them with much needed sympathy and understanding. Because all of the volunteers have had by-pass operations, they can easily interact with the patients they visit.

Up-to-date figures show that volunteers make 227,000 hospital visits to patients each year and 30,000 visits to patients’ families and care givers. Mended Hearts is affiliated with 460 hospitals and rehabilitation clinics, and besides serving the entire United States, it reaches out worldwide to include parts of Canada and New Zealand.

In the local area, the organization has chapter #45, a Queens/Nassau group which meets every Thursday morning at the AHA building in Plainview, N.Y. It has approximately 800 members and may be the largest Mended Hearts chapter in the United States. The volunteers share their experiences at these meetings, which are presided over by an elected official or chairperson.

Chapter 45’s slogan, “It’s Great to Be Alive and to Help Others,” typifies the philosophy of the entire Mended Hearts program. The Mended Hearts staff instructs the volunteers on the best ways to commiserate with patients, who have to make lifestyle changes as a result of their being depressed during the post-operative recovery period. The volunteers help to alleviate the fears of recovering patients and give advice and support to their families.

A typical volunteer is Glendale resident Murray (Hal) Perlstein, 82 years old, who underwent a septuple (seven) heart by-pass operation in 1989. After he recovered 13 years ago he volunteered his services with Mended Hearts and was assigned to visit cardiac patients at New York Hospital of Queens, in Flushing, where he goes every Thursday.

“The program’s objective is to ease the stress that most heart patients experience,” Perlstein said. “We identify with them because we have all been down that same road and we try to answer questions from the patients and their family members as best as we can.”

In addition, Perlstein attends meetings once a month at Winthrop Hospital, in Mineola, N.Y., with the group’s elected officers and other volunteers. Guest speakers, such as doctors, nurses and pharmaceutical personnel, are invited to these sessions to keep the group apprised of any medical breakthroughs in the cardiology field and techniques on the best way to communicate with patients.

Perlstein keeps himself in shape by exercising three days a week at the Cardiac Health Center of New York Hospital of Queens. He is a World War II Air Force veteran who was part of the back-up crew on the famed Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, which led to the surrender of the Japanese and the end of World War II.

The Mended Hearts organization was founded more than 50 years ago by the late Dwight E. Harkin, a New England surgeon, who recognized that heart patients’ emotional anxieties are a definite obstacle in the recovery phase. He came up with the idea of using former open-heart patients as volunteers to aid in the recovery of by-pass patients; the results have been mainly positive.

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