While cardiologists attend to physical needs, this group heals the emotional wounds of heart surgery patients
In the midst of heartache, literal and emotional, Lynchburg’s Mended Hearts chapter is there to offer an ear, a shoulder, and, more importantly, a heart, open and beating strong with a desire to offer some comfort during a difficult time.
Chartered almost three decades ago, in 1989, Blue Ridge Mended Hearts Chapter No. 16 visits patients undergoing heart surgery, and their families, to offer personal, emotional support. Volunteers also follow-up with them over the phone and the chapter sends monthly newsletters. Mended Hearts holds regular meetings—usually the fourth Thursday of the month—in the Pearson Cancer Center (across from Lynchburg General Hospital), which are free and open to the public. These programs feature guest speakers and provide invaluable information on key health topics.
“I feel that we are helping heart patients get well,” said Betty Drinkard, Chapter 16 President. While she has not suffered from heart problems, Drinkard noted that about 99 percent of the club’s members have had some kind of heart issues.
“Those of us who do have heart issues, we tell the patients, ‘I truly understand how you feel.
It is all right to be afraid. It’s all right to get a little bit depressed. But I promise you one thing, when you go home, you will feel better than you have in a long time. I am sure you are going to take better care of yourself than you have in your life.’”
Mended Hearts brings healing in ways that physicians cannot.
“We offer hope and encouragement,” Drinkard said. “We visit every heart patient at Lynchburg General Hospital. When a heart patient is having any type of procedure, we visit with the patient’s family.”
Centra has even provided Mended Hearts with an office and computer on the third floor of the hospital, where the heart patients are. (Volunteers also served at Virginia Baptist Hospital back when it had heart patients.)
“The cardiologists email us with information on every single heart patient,” Drinkard said. “The patients, they are so appreciative; once they find out [their visitor] has heart issues too, boy, they open up and they are ready to tell their life story. And we enjoy hearing it too. We definitely offer them as much encouragement as we can.”
Mended Hearts is the nation’s oldest and the largest peer-to-peer cardiovascular support group in the world, with more than 300 chapters supporting over 460 hospitals in North America. Annually, Mended Hearts touches approximately 2,000 people in the Lynchburg area.
This year at the annual Mended Hearts National Education and Training Conference, Blue Ridge Mended Hearts Chapter No. 16 received the Award of Excellence, recognizing Lynchburg as the No. 1 chapter out of over 40 in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Every year Lynchburg’s chapter sends 10 people to the conference, consistently one of the most strongly represented chapters. This is because Chapter 16 recognizes the important educational benefit afforded at this national training event.
In the area, it started in the early 1980s with a small group of cardiologists, nurses, and volunteers who dubbed themselves the “Cardiac Club.” When they heard about Mended Hearts, they soon worked toward becoming a chartered chapter, and today, Chapter 16 has over 85 members.
Much of this growth is simple addition through impact.
Like so many current members, Carol Bryant got involved after a Mended Hearts member visited her during a difficult time.
“My husband had the surgery,” Bryant recalled. “I was the caregiver. A Mended Hearts member came in and talked with us about his experience.
We talked about the feelings and how to go forward; it was an encouragement.”
That was in 1993. Since then, Bryant has served as the chapter’s president, among other roles, and is currently the president’s advisor.
The power of the peer-to-peer connection is what drew First Vice President Laurel Dodgion to Mended Hearts. Her family suffers from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare, incurable heart condition.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the condition includes abnormally thick heart muscle that may make it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. Symptoms include pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fainting. Growing up, Dodgion did not know of her condition and she and her siblings struggled because of it. For decades they endured several tests, studies, experimental medications, treatments and so forth as experts sought to learn more about the condition, which is often (as with her family) caused by genetic abnormalities. She has lost four brothers and a sister, as well as children, nieces, nephews, grandkids and other family members to the disease.
Though she did not personally receive Mended Hearts visits (she was treated at hospitals outside of Lynchburg), when Dodgion read about what the organization was doing here in Lynchburg, she wanted to get involved. Since then, Dodgion—as well as her sister, Dee Dee Stevens—has discovered a “calling” in visiting patients.
“I get so much just out of listening to the poor patients,” Dodgion said. “I try to tell them where I am coming from and they can see why I do this, because I have been through so much with my family. … Some people, it really just blows them away.”
Two years ago, Dodgion had the opportunity to share her story at the national conference.
She said that she has really embraced Chapter 16’s motto, “It’s great to be alive and help others.”
“I say [to the patients I visit], ‘There is life after surgery. We all have difficult days … [but] each day you get a little bit better. And once you get your body in shape and get to a place where you can get back to your life, it makes a big difference.’ I give them as much encouragement and hope as I can. It just makes them feel so much better; it makes me feel good, helping them.
And with some of them, you really see the difference.”
Drinkard also knows firsthand the emotional gamut families go through when dealing with cardiac issues. She saved her husband’s life with CPR when he went into cardiac arrest while they were having lunch at home. She was his caregiver for 32 years. Ty Cobb Drinkard was a charter member of Chapter 16. And even since his passing eight years ago, his legacy lives on.
Betty Drinkard’s involvement by his side, and now in his honor, has not waned. The annual Ty Cobb Drinkard Memorial Golf Tournament at London Downs regularly raises tens of thousands of dollars that goes into the community.
Lynchburg’s Mended Hearts has committed to investing nearly $20,000 each year for the next three years to various charities, scholarships and aid efforts. In December, the first Nancy Eggleston Memorial Scholarship (named for a recently deceased charter member) was awarded to a nursing graduate specializing in cardiology. Chapter 16 has purchased AED defibrillators for a number of community organizations and churches, has donated $25,000 to help build the Rosemary & George Dawson Inn, a nonprofit facility that provides affordable lodging to patients (and their friends and family) who are receiving care at a Centra location, and contributed toward Centra’s renovated Pediatric Center. The organization also regularly supports rehabilitation therapy for heart patients whose insurance does not cover it and purchases rehab recovery items for several patients.
“I’ve never worked with an organization as dedicated as Mended Hearts,” said Drinkard, who has been involved in a number of charitable organizations over the years. “I guess because most of our members have been through a lot of trauma, heart-wise. It makes you appreciate life more, that is for sure.”
Mended Hearts is always looking for more volunteers to carry the legacy forward. Connect with Chapter 16 at (434) 200-7611. For information on the organization, visit MendedHearts.org.