Published on February 16, 2009

Two Hearts Beat as One

Couple fights heart disease together

Cardiac Rehab

It began with his angioplasty in 1998, and continued with her angioplasty in 2001.

In 10 years, the united hearts of Marvin and Florence Reddick have endured five stent placements, one open-heart surgery, two phases of cardiac rehabilitation, diabetes, and multiple stress tests and angiograms. Their bond has strengthened in the face of diet changes and exercise challenges as they've persevered against coronary artery disease. 

Through chest pains, clogged arteries and cholesterol meds, they've found a mutual dedication to living a healthier lifestyle -- and, a mutual admiration for the experts at the Genesis Heart Institute. They've also worked to defy their genetic odds; each has a strong family history of heart disease.

"We married 20 years ago when neither of us had heart disease -- or diabetes," Florence says, 65, who lives near Aledo, Ill.

Fond of heart

As the saying goes, "opposites attract." However, that may not be true when it comes to coronary risk factors, says a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. If one spouse has risk factors for heart disease, the other spouse is more likely to share similarities in measures of health, such as smoking, body mass index, blood pressure, triglycerides, LDL "bad" cholesterol, and weight, the study shows.

Researchers studied 100,000 pairs of spouses for major coronary risk factor and attributed the similarity between husbands and wives to several reasons: First, spouses share environmental factors; they have the same lifestyle. Secondly, people tend to be attracted to mates like themselves.

That makes sense, says Karen Doy, R.N., manager of Genesis Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation, who has seen at least 10 couples go through cardiac rehabilitation together -- some at the same time. "Couples go to the same restaurants together, and often tend to enjoy the same high-fat foods. They often share the same level of activity and deal with the same stress in the family."

The Reddicks grew up on farms, and were accustomed to high-fat, country cooking. It was only natural for that diet to continue after they married.

 "Marvin was the first to know he had coronary artery disease," Florence says. "We were in Florida at the time when he began experiencing shoulder and chest pain. I'm a nurse and worried he was having a heart attack."

It wasn't a heart attack, but the next day, Marvin underwent angioplasty to open small blockages in his heart, and his fight with heart disease began. Seven years later, it was Florence's turn.

"I started having chest discomfort one day at home," she says. "I was concerned because my brother had died suddenly of a massive coronary at age 49."

A stress test revealed no problems, but months later, Florence had chest pain that was far more severe. The couple's cardiologist, Ed Coyne, M.D., of Cardiovascular Medicine, P.C., inserted a stent, a small metal coil, into one of her arteries to open a blockage. A couple of months later, more chest pain led to the revelation that scar tissue had re-narrowed the artery.

There was a second stent in November 2001; a third stent in April 2002; more chest pain, irradiation of the scar tissue that had built up in a stent; a fourth stent in October 2002. She then enjoyed a six-year respite from the Catheterization Lab, until she had her fifth stent placement last year.

Probably the scariest time for the couple was when Marvin underwent a double coronary artery bypass surgery four years ago. "I was terrified because my mother went through that and had a very hard time, but Marvin recovered wonderfully well," says Florence, adding that Marvin's father died of a heart attack at 52. His brother also recently died of heart disease.

The benefits of Cardiac Rehab

The Reddicks have learned a lot and found great comfort with supervised exercise at Genesis Cardiac Rehabilitation. "We both thought it was a wonderful environment," Florence says. "The staff is so helpful; the machines are great; and, you feel safe pushing yourself."

Living as a couple with heart disease, the two help each other to lead a healthier lifestyle. "I had always been a country cooker, with lots of gravies and fried foods, but we have really knocked down our fat intake and worked to lose weight," says Florence, who lost 30 pounds on her own and then has lost an additional 40 pounds with the help of a gastric banding procedure through the Genesis Center for Bariatric Surgery.

"We help each other," she says. "I'll be fixing something, and Marvin will say, 'You know, we shouldn't have that tonight.' We both consciously think about what we're eating."

Even when husbands and wives don't share a diagnosis of heart disease, the support they give each other goes a long way toward helping heart patients change their lifestyle.

"We have a lot of couples who work out together in Phase 3 and Phase 4 Cardiac Rehabilitation," Doy says. "One may not have true heart disease but wants to reduce their risk for heart disease."

"When the husband or wife needs to follow a new diet and exercise plan, their spouse often follows along, learns to cook more healthfully, and ultimately benefits from living a healthier lifestyle, too," Doy says. "Supporting each other really helps."

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