Mended Hearts volunteers help heart patients and families

On a recent Friday at 8 a.m., Michael Zulinski Sr. took his place at the help desk in Christiana Care’s cardiac and vascular waiting area, where he volunteers with Chapter 198 of the Mended Hearts of Delaware, a support group for heart patients and their families. Wearing his signature blue coat with a red Mended Hearts patch, he reports for duty each Friday to check on patients who are having open-heart surgery or moving from intensive care to the adjacent stepdown unit.

Zulinski underwent his own triple bypass surgery in 2011 and was given such strong support by Mended Hearts that he decided to become a volunteer. He is now president of Chapter 198. When he volunteers, he speaks with families in the waiting area, helping them understand where their loved one is in the surgery-recovery process. In addition, the 67-year-old Richardson Park resident can answer questions from a personal perspective about what his own rehabilitation was like.

“I enjoy talking to people and putting them at ease, though I am careful not to offer medical advice,” said Zulinski, a friendly Navy veteran and former parole officer. “If families are interested, I share how I may have seemed fragile when I was in the stepdown unit talking with my kids. But every day I would take a short walk and try to increase it. At the end of two weeks I was feeling much better and walking my dog.”

Th­is month, Mended Hearts Chapter 198 celebrates its 30th anniversary, having helped and encouraged more than 25,000 Christiana Care heart patients and their families. ­The volunteers, who have had their own life-changing open-heart surgery, reach out to nearly 800 patients and families a year. ­The chapter has 55 members with 17 actively volunteering.

Originally Mended Hearts only assisted patients and families undergoing open-heart surgery, but today the volunteers also assist those having a cardiac catheterization or a stent placed in an artery as part of a percutaneous coronary intervention.

Mended Heart volunteers have earned the praise and appreciation of Timothy Gardner, M.D., medical director of the Center for Heart & Vascular Health and executive director of the Value Institute. He appreciates the volunteers’ partnership with the medical team to help reduce anxiety for families whose loved ones are in surgery.

When visiting patients in the stepdown unit, Mended Hearts volunteers answer questions, share their own experiences and provide patients with a comprehensive “HeartGuide.” Th­ey invite patients to support group meetings that are held at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month in Room 1303 of the Christiana Care cafeteria. Often, volunteers also call patients weeks after they’ve returned home to ask about their recovery.

“Mended Hearts is a great success story,” said Dr. Gardner. “Imagine you are a member of a family that suddenly finds your father or mother is in need of surgery that carries a risk of mortality, and you don’t know what to expect. Meeting someone who can offer perspective on what it was like for them to handle the stresses of a hospital and what it took to go through rehabilitation and resume normal living is incredibly helpful. ­This is a volunteer peer organization that provides excellent patient and family support.”

In addition, volunteers express strong appreciation for the professionalism of doctors, nurses and other medical staff at Christiana Care. “­This is one of the top hospitals in the country for these types of procedures, and we are very lucky to have them as part of our community,” said Diane Margolin, a chapter officer who trains Mended Heart volunteers. ­

The chapter is part of a national organization that is affiliated with the American Heart Association. Mended Hearts has more than 300 community-based chapters, serving nearly 215,000 patients and caregivers annually. Chapter 198 volunteers often become active out of appreciation for how much support their family received from Mended Hearts during their open-heart surgery.

Mended Hearts volunteers are part of a large cohort of community residents who give of their time in a multitude of ways. During the last fiscal year, 1,379 volunteers donated 78,901 hours to Christiana Care.

“Th­e Mended Hearts program is a great way for our families who are experiencing something unexpected to have support on an individual basis as they go through an anxious and fearful time,” said Margarita Rodriguez-Duffy, MSW, CAVS, director of Visitor and Volunteer Services.

In fact, Rodriguez-Duffy benefited from the group’s comforting support when her father went through open-heart surgery. Just knowing what to expect as the day progressed was very important, she said.

Volunteers share their experiences with Christiana Care’s cardiac rehabilitation program, which helps patients exercise safely while gradually increasing intensity, with a goal toward improving overall strength and flexibility. Kersey Vakharia, vice president of Chapter 198, likens the program to outpatient training run by medical experts who provide close and caring supervision.

Kersey Vakharia, vice president of Mended Hearts Chapter 198, describes how rewarding he finds his volunteer work at Christiana Hospital.

“Th­is was one of the best things I learned about from Mended Hearts,” said Vakharia, who had four bypasses in 1994. “Cardiac rehab got me back on my feet faster than if I had tried to undertake rehab on my own.”

When sharing such insights, Mended Hearts volunteers say it’s rewarding to see the relief on the worried faces of patients and families seeking signs of hope.

“I laughingly say that we work for hugs,” said Margolin. “What’s so wonderful is that by the time we’ve finished talking with a family, we’ve made new friends.”