When Bertozzi woke up four days after her “event,” as she calls it, she thought she had been in a car accident. When her surgeon and husband told her what had happened, the news was unnerving, to say the least.
“There is a real aspect of fear when someone fiddles with your heart,” she says. “You’re powerless. It can be a real test in patience. You’re worried about not being at work; you’re worried about finances; you’re worried about the face you put on for your family.”
In 1951, Boston heart surgeon Dwight Harken noticed similar anxieties and uneasiness in some of his patients, so he assembled four of them to discuss what they could do to mitigate it. From this meeting, Mended Hearts was born. The Albany, Georgia-based nonprofit organization now has approximately 27,400 members across 285 chapters and groups around the country. (Bertozzi is treasurer of the Washington, D.C., chapter.) Last year, its 3,000 accredited volunteer visitors made about 230,000 bedside visits to patients in 460 hospitals.
“Everyone in this country has a heart story to tell,” says Norm Linsky, a resident of Northwest Washington, D.C., and executive director of Mended Hearts. “Either themselves or a relative or a close friend.”
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, taking more than 600,000 lives each year, according to Mended Hearts, and people living with the disease face many mental and physical obstacles. “It took a long time for me to understand that every ‘normal’ ache and pain was just simply that—normal,” Bertozzi says. “I was still going to get headaches, colds, pulled muscles. I just had to learn to convince myself that it was just normal, and not related to my disease.”
According to the American Heart Association, up to 25 percent of patients experience cardiac depression. “It’s usually situational, and gets better once people are more physically active and outside of the hospital and recognize that they can do well and have vibrant, very active lives after heart surgery,” says Dr. Philip Corcoran, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon with Suburban’s Heart Center who operated on Bertozzi. He credits Mended Hearts with helping many of his patients.
“They come with a phenomenal amount of credibility because they’ve been through the process, sometimes more than once,” he says.
John Barton was 82 when he shuffled into Bertozzi’s hospital room. A Mended Hearts volunteer, he had undergone bypass surgery more than a decade earlier.
“I have to say, there was a little cynicism in my head,” Bertozzi says. “Here’s this old guy, and here I am about to go home to three kids. It wasn’t fair, but in my head I was like, OK, easy for you to say that I’m going to get through this. But he charmed me. He was very sweet and thoughtful. It makes a difference when somebody outside of your circle visits you. Your family and friends sort of have to come. This guy didn’t know me at all, and he was there every day, telling me I could do this.”
Neither Bertozzi, who was often in a medicinal haze, nor Barton remember many details of their visits, but Barton vividly recalls one moment they shared while he was at her bedside. “She looked up at me and said, ‘I want to do what you do,’ ” the Chevy Chase resident says. “Even in her situation in her life at that time, she was determined. She’s a kindred soul.” Six months after leaving the hospital, Bertozzi took training courses through both Suburban Hospital and Mended Hearts. She learned patient privacy laws, how to be an active listener, and that all heart patients are unique.
“We all process fear differently. We all recover at different rates. We all have our own sets of challenges,” she says. “Even with all these differences, there is an invaluable common bond that brings heart patients together. Without sounding corny, it just spoke to me. It felt like this was the way I could give back.”
Jeffrey Steinhorn was one of the first patients she visited. He underwent a 4½-hour surgery to repair a mitral valve prolapse on the Monday before Thanksgiving 2015. Bertozzi first saw him later that week. “Most everyone who’s there is traumatized. She’s effective because she has compassion for the situation,” says Steinhorn, who pauses to regain his composure. The 72-year-old is now one of four accredited Mended Hearts visitors at Suburban. “I’m sorry…I get emotional. You give comfort to a family by saying, ‘I’m a survivor. Look at me. I’m walking around, I’ve got my life back.’ ”