Healthy Lifestyles: San Diego Heart Attack Recovery Program Changing Lives

Publication: KPBS 89.5FM Radio Interview

Host: Kenny Gold


Hundreds of thousands of American die every year from a heart attack. For those who survive one, recovery can be difficult. It often requires a complete change in lifestyle and mind-set. A unique program helps San Diegans do just that. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

When you think about recovering from a heart attack, a drum circle may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But at the Healing Hearts program at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, music is part of the recovery process.

Music therapist Barbara Reuer says heart attack patients can get a lot out of playing the drums.

Reuer: We hear our mother’s heartbeat in utero, and so already we have that internal rhythm within us. And so we teach them how they can entrain to the rhythm of the drum, and then therefore help lower their heart rate, and sometimes the research also shows that it can lower blood pressure.

Music therapy is just one of the offerings here. There are a host of others, including stress management, yoga, and cooking classes.

Cooking Teacher: Today we’re doing spa cuisine, and some really fun recipes, we’ve got an herb-infused spa water, butternut squash risotto, and as we’ll we’ve got a vegetarian lettuce wrap recipe. And we’re going to start with the risotto.

Healthy eating, proper exercise, and even spiritual wellness — they’re all part of the Healing Hearts program.

Cardiologist Mimi Guarneri is the program’s founder and medical director. Years ago, Dr. Guarneri found herself thinking a lot about how doctors treat heart attack patients. She was pleased with the effectiveness of angioplasties and other procedures. But Guarneri felt there was something missing.

Guarneri: We’re great in the western model to do surgery, antibiotics, diagnostic procedures. But the question becomes, why are we waiting for people to have a heart attack? What can we do to turn the faucet off, if you might, right up front? What can we do to keep people healthy and prevent them from getting ill?

Guarneri thought about integrating western medicine with alternative therapies like meditation.  So, she started the Healing Hearts program in 1999. The 12-week program involves consultations with a physician, psychologist, and a dietician. Patients get a supervised exercise program. And they get exposed to a variety of approaches to healing the mind, body, and spirit. Guarneri says every treatment is backed by research.

Guarneri: Let’s take TM meditation, for example. TM has been extensively studied, and it has been shown to decrease blood pressure, to improve insulin resistance. So, just looking at that one modality, there is a whole group of evidence behind it.

Still, some heart attack patients don’t buy into everything in the program. Take Frank Fernicola, for example. He had some issues with the spirituality class.

Fernicola says he had religion shoved down his throat as a kid. Since then, he’s rejected it. So when the woman teaching the spirituality class started talking about prayer, Fernicola almost walked out.

But then, he says the teacher said something that turned him around.

Fernicola: She said prayer is watching a sunset. Prayer is enjoying a good meal with a friend. Prayer is walking on the beach. Prayer is listening to a beautiful piece of music. In other words, prayer is enjoying life. And that made a huge impact on me. I just love that, I pray every day.

Healing Hearts is also about preventing heart disease in the first place. Pacific Beach resident Linda Watson has a history of heart attacks in her family. Before she enrolled, Watson suffered from heart palpitations and was overweight. Today it’s a different story.

Watson:  I lowered my cholesterol by about 30 points naturally, my blood pressure is down. To date I’ve lost 50 pounds, and I’m a 56-year-old woman, I didn’t think that was possible. Dr. Guarneri says the integrative approach really works.

Guarneri: People that do an aggressive lifestyle change program, in comparison to people that have traditional care, they have half the number of admissions to the hospital for congestive heart failure and heart attack.

Guarneri hopes some day, prevention of heart disease will be fully integrated into western medicine. People would certainly benefit. After all, about 2,600 Americans die of heart disease every day. Many of those people didn’t even know they were at risk. Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.   [ end ]


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