Eight years ago, Eric Smeltzer was playing racquetball and had a heart attack on the court. He underwent four bypasses and open-heart surgery and, after beating an infection in his surgical wound, he felt recovered and went back to his daily life.
Fast-forward to March 19, 2019, when Smeltzer, who is in his 60s, was playing racquetball on a different court — this time, at the Augusta Health Fitness Center — and collapsed again.
“I played one match against a fella and I had never played him before, so after the game, we were sitting on the bench getting to know each other,” says Smeltzer.
“Ironically, I was telling him about my first heart attack eight years ago and how I was still kind of getting back into shape. Then, the next thing I know, I was staring up into an EMT’s face.”
Fortunately for Smeltzer, Zachary Allen, an exercise specialist at the Augusta Health Fitness Center, was in the building at the time. When Allen learned that someone by the racquetball courts needed medical attention, he rushed to the scene. After seeing Smeltzer face down and unconscious, he turned Smeltzer over and began to perform CPR. His co-worker then brought an automated external defibrillator and they began performing CPR and chest compressions. Smeltzer’s heart rate and pulse immediately returned.
“When he came back and I saw he was OK, the first feeling I felt was relief,” recalls Allen, 23, who began working at Augusta Health last August after receiving a degree in exercise science from Bridgewater College. “I was more happy than anything that he had made it. It was almost a shock that it had taken place. It was shock and relief.”
When he came to, Smeltzer was taken to Augusta Health, where physicians tried to perform a balloon angioplasty to open up his clogged arteries. However, his arteries were too clogged for the procedure to be effective. He was flown via helicopter to the University of Virginia Health System University Hospital in Charlottesville (UVA), where he received stents to open up the arteries.
“I do still have a blocked right coronary artery,” says Smeltzer. “They tried and tried to clear it out, and they were unsuccessful with that. But they told me that with a good diet and exercise, the arteries might clear themselves out. So I’m optimistic.”
As part of his postrecovery exercise and wellness routine, Smeltzer was referred to the Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation program at Augusta Health by his cardiologist at UVA.
Exercising the mind and body
This physician-referred, outpatient program addresses the physical, psychological and educational aspects of living with heart disease, and establishes individualized programs based on each patient’s lifestyle and health.
Heart rate and rhythm, as well as blood pressure, are all monitored during exercise sessions. In addition to exercise, the rehabilitation program offers nutrition counseling, stress management and medication education. There are also group sessions where patients and staff can discuss the challenges of everyday living with heart disease.
“We don’t have a cookie-cutter program where everyone has to come in and do the same things,” says David Zerrlaut, MS, exercise physiologist and supervisor of Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation at Augusta Health. “We don’t just treat the disease; we treat the patient, too.”
Because Smeltzer enjoys biking, the program has incorporated the stationary bike into his exercise sessions. He has attended six of his 36 sessions so far, and with additional nutritional education and emotional support from his family and friends, he is already seeing positive results.
“It’s going pretty well. David and the nurses [at Cardiac Rehab] have been really helpful, and my wife has me on a super-clean diet. I’ve lost about 10 pounds,” he says.
Smeltzer also attributes the great care he received at UVA and Augusta Health to his overall journey in healing and slowly getting back to his daily activities.
“I never really got to do any rehab the first time; I had to do it all on my own,” he says. “This time, I have the benefit of doing rehab, and I had no open wounds, no infection. The experience was much better than it was back then. I have nothing but good things to say about UVA and Augusta Health.”
Now, Smeltzer is just itching to get back on the racquetball court.
Learn more about Cardiac Rehab at Augusta Health at augustahealth.com/heart/cardiac-rehabilitation.