For many of the estimated 3,000 patients who undergo a heart transplant every year, rehabilitation begins even before surgery. In many cases, by the time someone needs a new heart, years of cardiovascular disease have left the patient increasingly weak and debilitated, compromising their ability to tolerate the demands of transplant surgery and endure the rigors of recovery. As part of their evaluation, transplant candidates at NYU Langone Health are referred to Rusk Rehabilitation’s Joan and Joel Smilow Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention Center. The center’s evaluation program tests the patient’s physical, metabolic, and emotional fitness and guides them through a course of “prehab” exercise and lifestyle modifications to bolster their strength and stamina. “The healthier the patient is going into surgery, the better they’ll fare during the operation, throughout the hospital stay, and over the course of their recovery,” says Jonathan H. Whiteson, MD, the center’s medical director.
After surgery, patients generally receive two to three weeks of inpatient rehabilitation, followed by three months of outpatient therapy. In the hospital, physical and occupational therapists treat patients daily to keep them mobile and promote their independence.
The outpatient program is designed to increase endurance, reduce symptoms of shortness of breath and fatigue, improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels, facilitate weight loss, provide stress management, and instill a lifelong heart-healthy lifestyle.
Since its inception in 1991, the center, the largest and most comprehensive program of its kind in the tri-state region, has been at the forefront of managing cardiopulmonary disease. In addition to caring for NYU Langone’s patients who have undergone heart transplants and other cardiopulmonary procedures, the program serves patients referred by other local medical centers.
“Many candidates for a heart transplant have become relatively inactive,” Dr. Whiteson explains. “They need to improve their strength, endurance, balance, and mobility. It’s hard, hard work, and we set high goals to ensure that they thrive. Typically, they are so grateful for a new lease on life that they’re highly motivated. For our part, we have a lifelong commitment to these patients. They may mature past their need for us, but we never get over them.”