If you meet Keith Nance, you may get to see his heart. He can pull up the
video and pictures on his smartphone, proof of the incredible ordeal he
survived this past year. There's a picture of his old failing heart,
discolored and enlarged with a pump attached, sitting on an operating
room table. There’s also a video of Nance’s new heart, bright
red and half the size of the old one, pumping inside of his chest.
Three months after his heart transplant surgery in October, 51-year-old
Nance shared those images and talked about his remarkable journey. A diagnosis
of congestive heart failure about 15 years ago forced him to take a more
active role in his own health. Iredell Health System's cardiac rehabilitation
program provided the structure, resources, and encouragement he needed
to face the fight of his life.
When his heart first began to fail, Nance mistook the symptoms for pneumonia.
Congestive heart failure is a disorder where the heart does not pump enough
blood to meet the body’s needs. Nance received a pacemaker and started
sessions at the cardiac rehab center on the campus of Iredell Memorial Hospital.
“They’ve got good equipment here and they are as nice as they
can be. If you need any help, they don’t mind helping you, as long
as you need it,” said Nance.
This week, February 12-18, is National Cardiac Rehabilitation Week. It
brings attention to the importance of rehabilitation in reducing the harmful
effects of heart disease. Cardiac rehab is available for heart attack
or heart failure patients, and those diagnosed with stable angina. It
can also help patients prepare for or recover from procedures including
angioplasty, valve replacement, heart transplant, and bypass surgery.
Like all patients in Iredell Health's program, Nance began rehab with
a fitness test and an evaluation of his mental and emotional health. He
also had to review his eating habits with a dietitian.
“You don’t really notice how much you are eating and how many
calories you’re getting until you write it down,” Nance said.
“It’s a big thing.”
Participants receive an “exercise prescription” and start regular
workouts. There are classes on coping, meditation and stress management.
Patients have access to a licensed mental health counselor. Cardiopulmonary
Rehabilitation Manager Lisa Warren says the adjustment can be difficult
at first. Then patients see the results.
“It’s hard over the first few weeks, most have never had a
regular exercise routine," said Warren. “They're going
to say, 'what in the world have I signed up for?' Then after two
or three weeks, you see a difference. They are standing up tall. Their
stamina is improving. It makes a difference."
For a while, medical intervention and cardiac rehab helped Nance to stay
on his feet.
“That prolonged me for about 10 years," Nance said. "They
kept it pretty level. Then about three years ago, all of my organs started
The pacemaker was no longer enough to keep Nance’s heart functioning
properly. In November of 2015 he was hospitalized, intubated and sedated,
and came close to death multiple times. Doctors installed a left ventricular
assist device to help his heart pump blood to the rest of the body. He
faced numerous complications during his recovery. He needed to be healthy
enough to eventually get a new heart, but at that point even simple tasks
“When I was intubated for those two weeks, once they brought me back
out of being asleep, I had lost the use of my arms, hands," Nance
said. "I could hardly grab a cup. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t
grasp a pen.”
"For a while it was a little rough,” he continued. “I’ve
got a son who’s 15 and he took it kind of hard. He didn’t
know what was going to happen to me."
Once out of the hospital, Nance returned to rehab with a new set of goals
and a mission to prepare for a heart transplant.
“It gave me a lot of energy that I didn’t have,” Nance
said. “It strengthened me up a little, you know, preparing me for
Under the supervision of the rehab center staff, Nance resumed exercise
and stuck to a specialized diet. Eventually his hard work paid off and
he was ready to receive a new heart. His transplant surgery took place
on Halloween of 2016, almost a year after the medical scare which nearly
cost him his life.
Nance credits the relationships he formed while in rehab and the support
he received from the staff as one reason for his success.
“Everybody is so great,” said Nance. “Even when I didn’t
take therapy, I would still come up here and aggravate them a bit, you
know. Whenever you get to know them, it’s kind of like a small family.
It’s really neat.”
“Cardiac patients come in and they are discouraged,” said Warren.
“They have heard all the things from their physician that they can’t
do. We are here with the positives. This is an opportunity for you to
change your life and be the best you’ve ever been.”
Nance has more rehab in his future as he adjusts to his new heart. It’s
clear he’s not taking this chance at life for granted.
“You just got to pray to God that everything works out,” Nance
said. “He’s got me here for a reason. I don’t know what
but I’m here for a reason.”