Mended Hearts volunteers lend guidance, share surgery experiences

February 22, 2011 

Tommy and Janette Wilkerson stand in their Sun City Hilton Head Home. Both joined Mended Hearts, a national nonprofit group affiliated with the American Heart Association, after Tommy had open-heart surgery. Mended Hearts pairs heart patients with people who already have undergone similar procedures and can offer advice, suggestions and support.


The concept of having open-heart surgery is frightening enough. It can get even scarier if you're feeling alone in the process. After all, it's not a procedure that's dealt with quickly. It's life-changing, and some of those changes might not be anticipated.

Sun City Hilton Head resident Tommy Wilkerson recently had bypass surgery. Now he's hoping to pass what he's learned in that experience onto others.

Wilkerson is a member of the local chapter of the nationwide organization Mended Hearts. It's like a support group for people who have undergone heart surgery. The group meets monthly for educational sessions or to hear expert speakers. But the group's main thrust is counseling. About 35 members are part of the group, most of them trained to meet with patients going through the process of a heart surgery, said chapter president Thomas Cordy.

American Heart Month in February draws attention to cardiovascular disease as the nation's No. 1 killer. Coronary bypass or valve surgeries are commonplace. But the surgery itself is just one step of the process in recovering from a heart issue.

Wilkerson's father had five bypasses in 1976. He knew heart disease was in his genes. He always stayed on top of his heart health, frequently getting checked by doctors. He suffered a heart attack in 1991 while vacationing on Hilton Head, heightening his awareness.

He went in for a heart catheterization in August. He knew something was not normal because the doctors were spending more time with him than usual. As it turned out, he needed a bypass operation.

The surgery went well, and he was out of Hilton Head Hospital within three days. Right next to him through the process was his friend and Mended Hearts volunteer Jack Strickler.

Strickler had a four-way bypass three years earlier and had to get a pacemaker. Since joining Mended Hearts, he's helped others in the process he'd already gone through. For patients at the hospital admitted for heart surgery, the offer is made to connect to a Mended Hearts member. The decision is up to them. If the connection is made, the member's duty is to listen. Strickler has met with a range of patients, those who need practical advice and others dealing with anxiety heading into the operation.

"What I say is, 'I've been where you are,'" he said. "Just having someone to talk to who's been in the same situation is a big help."

Strickler knew Wilkerson because they both attend St. Luke's United Methodist Church. Wilkerson had an idea of what to expect from the surgery, but he and Strickler talked frequently about the recovery process.

Wilkerson recovered quickly from the operation in the hospital, but when he returned home he needed help doing the simplest things. His wife, Janette, had to help him get out of bed. He had to sit on a plastic chair in the shower. He slept in a separate bedroom from his wife, and he had a bell that he'd ring at night in case he needed help.

Right when he came home, he was a "complete bear," his wife recalls. He kept on saying he needed things "quickly." That tosn't going to work out. She was there for him, but he needed to understand she was doing the best she could. A conversation quickly resolved the conflict.

"It's not just the patient. The caregiver has to communicate, as well," she said.

As it turned out, it's not just the patients who can benefit from a little guidance through the operation and its recovery. It's their spouses or caregivers, too.

Life for either isn't exactly the same as it was before the operation. Wilkerson has to be more attentive to his diet and exercise routine. And his wife has changed her lifestyle to match his.

When Wilkerson decided to join Mended Hearts, so did his wife. She's training to give advice to caregivers.

"Knowing that there are other people in that situation makes you want to help," Wilkerson said. "If you can put their mind at ease, it's worth it."

Mended Hearts meets the second Tuesday of the month at Hilton Head Hospital.

Details: 843-706-2759,

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