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  • Sarah Waara

The return to normalcy after a heart attack

Updated: Jan 18



Sandra loves all of her kids — both biological and the kids she sees every day at work — which is why taking two weeks off of work was a struggle for her.


Those two weeks were necessary, though, as she suffered a heart attack on April 10. Sandra — an elementary school lunch lady in the Fox Valley — was only 44 when she started feeling off. As she sent her kids off to class in the morning, she couldn’t breathe. Soon, her ring and pinky fingers on both hands started to tingle and went numb. Her chest felt heavy, and she struggled to talk. Her neck and jaw began to hurt.


Thinking she was over-exerted, Sandra drove herself home and then had her husband drive her to the emergency department at Ascension NE Wisconsin - St. Elizabeth Campus as her symptoms wouldn’t go away. 


“I was at the hospital for a few hours and I felt fine. My tests were looking great, and they had just one more left — a blood draw to measure my cardiac troponin. Those levels came back elevated, which is a sign of a heart attack. After that I was sent upstairs to stay overnight.”


The next morning Sandra underwent cardiac catheterization where it was discovered that she had a full blockage. After getting a stent placed and staying at Ascension St. Elizabeth overnight, she was able to go home but couldn’t go back to work for two weeks.


After the two weeks were up she went back to work for the rest of the school year. As her kids went home for the summer, she went back to Ascension St. Elizabeth. But this time, it was for cardiac rehabilitation.


“I started my rehab in June and went three days a week for an hour every morning,” Sandra said. “I got to work with all of the staff depending on who was there, and all of them were really good to us. They gave me my workout plan and tools to help me stick with it and help get my heart stronger again.”


Every year, the cardiac rehabilitation program at Ascension St. Elizabeth sees nearly 400 patients that are working to build their heart’s strength back up after incidents such as heart attack or cardiac arrest.


Patients receive individualized plans that include cardio exercises such as walking on the treadmill and different strength activities with dumbbells. 


"Our cardiac rehabilitation program is designed to help our patients build their hearts stronger and healthier after a cardiac event like a heart attack," said Robyn West, Regional Supervisor, Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Services. "For a lot of patients, the program turns about to be so much more than a time to work out. It turns out to be a time where they can develop lasting relationships, build their confidence and become healthier day by day."


For many patients, the time spent in the 12-week outpatient program allows them to form lasting friendships not only with staff, but also with fellow patients. For Sandra, that meant gaining new best friends with fellow cardiac rehabilitation patients, the three J’s: Jackie, John and Jerry.


Today, Sandra is healthy, quit smoking and is back to work doing what she loves. She also meets her three J’s every month for breakfast, strengthening their friendships that started in the cardiac rehabilitation program.


Ascension Wisconsin Foundation is grateful to support cardiac rehabilitation across Ascension Wisconsin. Thanks to the generosity of donors, the Foundation has been able to fund projects such as the cardiac rehabilitation gym at Ascension Mercy, specialized exercise equipment at Ascension St. Elizabeth and more. Thank you for making this possible.


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