The Heart to Heart volunteer program recently celebrated its 10th year of providing support and encouragement to open-heart surgery patients at Doylestown Hospital. Staff from The Richard A. Reif Heart Institute, hospital administrators and current and former volunteers marked the milestone on Friday, May 18th at the hospital.
The program was created in 2002 to address a need expressed by patients as they recuperated in the hospital. Angie de Albuquerque had worked in Cardiac Rehab for more than a dozen years and was with the heart program when it started in 2000 as The Heart Center of Doylestown Hospital. For inspiration, she looked to outside groups like the Zipper Club and Reach for Recovery that relied on former patients to help other patients as they recovered. With the help of then Director of Volunteer Services Bonnie MacGregor and volunteer Frank Fimiano, she organized a focus group and brainstorming sessions that tapped former patients for their ideas. "Everybody loved talking about their experiences," de Albuquerque says. "It was almost like the answer was right in front of our faces." The answer was to have former heart surgery patients volunteer to help current patients and their families with the process of recovering from open-heart surgery.
The Heart to Heart volunteer program was created with an inaugural group of about 25 Doylestown Hospital volunteers. Ed Cunfer of Doylestown was one of them. "They wanted us to be as good as the other volunteers in the hospital," he says. "The group was set up to be a team." The Heart to Heart volunteers were and continue to be specially trained to meet the needs of patients and their families. They maintain communication binders to keep all the volunteers up to date on patient visits. Since the program's inception, they've met twice a year for education sessions and speakers. They meet as needed and have summer picnics so the volunteers can get to know one another better.
"They became an educated group," says de Albuquerque, who served as the group's point person for several years. She admits there was some resistance from the staff when the group was first introduced. But the volunteers were able to work seamlessly with the staff and maintain a commitment to respecting the needs of patients and their families. One of their key duties is visiting with patients who have just had heart surgery. More and more, the nurses would suggest to the volunteers which patients to see. The volunteers receive approval from the patients and referrals from nurses for these visits.
With the scope of cardiac services expanding, the center eventually became The Heart Institute of Doylestown Hospital and continues to offer the highest quality care to the community. Doylestown Hospital was named one of the Top 50 cardiovascular hospitals in the nation (Thomson Reuters 2011).
De Albuquerque eventually transitioned to Medical Research and handed the reins to the Heart Institute's office manager Cindy Bergin, who notes there are about 25 Heart to Heart volunteers currently active with the program. In addition to the visitations, they staff the information desk in The Heart Institute, help transport patients and take care of the family waiting area. They also work in the Cath Lab, welcoming patients in the morning, helping with transport and lending nurses a hand with various tasks. With a patient's approval, they'll make follow-up calls to home after discharge.
According to Doylestown Hospital's Executive Director of Cardiovascular Services John Mitchell, "Our Heart to Heart volunteers are an extremely dedicated group of caring and knowledgeable individuals who collectively provide both education and comfort to our heart surgery patients and their families. Over the years they have become as integrated and woven into the fabric of our program as the physicians and staff. I can't image our heart program without them."
Ed Cunfer had an aortic valve replacement several years before joining the group. "As soon as you tell the patients you've had this surgery, and they see you walking around and doing well, they're willing to listen," he says. "It's the easiest introduction to make them feel comfortable and that they're in the right place." Volunteers also play an important role in seeing to the needs of patients' families, whether in the waiting room, Cath/EP lab or at a recovering patient's bedside. Even though the program focuses on patient support, de Albuquerque and the volunteers were surprised to see that the patient's family needed more support than the patients at times, just handling the additional stress and coping with having to become the supportive one. "Seeing these volunteers lets patients and their families know there is a life beyond this crisis and it will be okay," says de Albuquerque. "For most people this is a one-time experience and all they can think of is the worst," adds Cunfer. "It's up to us to make them feel comfortable."