Twenty-eight years ago, Carl Nickels walked into a much different cardiac rehab department than the one he attends today.  After suffering from a heart attack in 1988, Nickels was referred by Ben Sanford, MD, to the OCH Cardiac Rehab program.  At that time, the two-year-old program was housed in the hospital’s basement and had only a few pieces of exercise equipment.  Nearly three decades later, the program, which is now housed inside the OCH Healthplex, boasts treadmills, arm ergometers, nustep, tectrix and air dyne bikes, but the changes over the years are much more far reaching than the eye can see.

“I’ve seen the program grow from a couple of bikes and an old rowing machine in the hospital basement to numerous machines in a nice facility,” said Nickels.

The program launched in February 1986 under the direction of Missy Staggers, RN, and Dr. Sanford as the medical director.  For 11 years, cardiac rehab patients met in the hospital basement before the program was moved inside the OCH Healthplex in July 1997, with Elizabeth Varco, RN, as the program director.  But far more has changed than just the location and type of equipment.

“Technology has improved cardiac rehab tremendously,” stated Varco.  “Patients can now exercise and have their hearts monitored simultaneously, and we have a program that records our patients’ exercise sessions and monitors each person’s telemetry.  That has made the program much more efficient,” she explained.

Varco said changes in insurance coverage has also played a big role in the number and type of her patients.

“We’re seeing a lot of patients with more serious heart conditions, such as congestive heart failure, because insurances are now covering cardiac rehab for those patients.  In the past, insurance companies would not cover cardiac rehab, and now, the program is covered by most all insurance companies,” said Varco.  “Patients see the benefits to being active and can build up their strength and have a better quality of life instead of just sitting at home,” she continued.

“We have a comradery in here,” said Nickels.  In other words, I’m not the only one who has a problem,” laughed Nickels as he sat on a stationary bike during one of his regular appointments.

“A lot of the patients stay with us for years in the last phase of the program, so we become more like a close knit family.  There’s really a bond that develops between the patients and the staff,” said Varco.

There are three phases of the cardiac rehab program.  The first phase takes place in the hospital for cardiac diagnostic testing or after a heart attack, coronary bypass surgery, or balloon angioplasty.  Educational materials are provided to the patient and their diet and activity are supervised.  During the second phase, patients begin an individualized outpatient exercise program that is monitored during cardiac rehab appointments.  This phase lasts anywhere from one to four months.  Throughout each session, the participant’s blood pressure, heart rate and cardiac rhythm are monitored closely.

“Some patients start the program very functional, but they may need improvement in the way they take care of their health.  For others, walking in our building is a major accomplishment,” said Varco.  “One of the main purposes of cardiac rehab is to not only prevent further progression of disease, but also to enhance quality of life, so that when participants go home, they can do the things in life that are important,” explained Varco.

The last phase of the program, which is also known as the maintenance program, includes a personalized exercise routine three times a week with limited supervision to encourage independence.  Registered nurses monitor the participant’s blood pressure before and after exercise and obtain a report of their heart rate and rhythm.

Nickels said he quit the phase three part of the program in 2010 to take care of his wife, and the results were detrimental to his health.

“I bought an exercise bike and was going to use it, but that didn’t work out.  I almost died.  When I got back in cardiac rehab, I was suffering from congestive heart failure, obesity, and all of the above.  Liz looked at me and said, ‘Welcome back!’” said Nickels.

Like Nickels, Bob Singletary also knows how important cardiac rehab is to his health. He joined the cardiac rehab program in September 2013, after he had surgery to remove an aneurysm his ascending aorta.

“Going to cardiac rehab is almost like seeing a doctor three times a week, but it’s more fun!  They monitor my heart rate and blood pressure, and I also receive information on diet and nutrition,” said Singletary.  “I highly recommend this program, which does a wonderful job in recovery and maintenance of health and strength,” he continued.

As the medical director of the cardiac rehab program for the span of its existence, Dr. Sanford said the program helps him monitor his patients more closely.

“The EKG (electrocardiogram) monitoring picks up any problems that I need to know about sooner than if the patient waited to schedule an appointment in my office.  Also, Liz keeps a close eye on the lists of medications the patients take, and she lets me know if they’re really taking their medicine like they should,” said Dr. Sanford, adding that the biggest change he’s seen over the last 30 years is the advancements in medicine.

“Most recently, a new injectable treatment on the market helps lowers cholesterol an additional 50%.  Advancements in procedures are helping patients to avoid surgery, and better surgeries are allowing patients to get out of the hospital much more quickly and into cardiac rehab,” continued Dr. Sanford.

“Thirty years is a major accomplishment, and we’ve come a long way,” said Varco. Any time a person’s health improves, it makes an impact on all of society. Because of this program, our patients can now work, participate in Sunday school, visit with their families and play with their grandchildren.”

If you are interested in joining the cardiac rehab program, call (662) 615-2625 for an appointment.  Your physician will then be contacted for approval and to obtain necessary medical records.  For more information, visit

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