When heart patient Harold Byrd complained of shortness of breath, exercise physiologist Rhonnda Cloinger urged him to see his cardiologist right away – advice that probably saved his life.

Exercise physiologist’s warning saves patient

When 77-year-old Harold Byrd ex­perienced shortness of breath, it was originally attributed to a virus. But when the symptom didn’t go away, he told Rhonnda Cloinger, an exercise physiologist for the Parkwest cardio­pulmonary rehabilitation program at Fort Sanders West.

She responded in no uncertain terms: “See your heart doctor!” It was advice that likely saved Byrd’s life.

The ensuing visit to his cardiologist resulted in a heart catheterization, thrombectomy and two stents after a blood clot was found to be blocking 99 percent of Byrd’s right coronary ar­tery.

Cloinger said that while there can be other causes for shortness of breath, “people are here [in cardiac rehab] be­cause of heart problems. When patients start telling us they’re short of breath, it’s automatic for us to quiz, ‘what is the cause of this symptom?’”

Byrd, who had his first cardiac stent in 2008 and a pacemaker and defibril­lator implanted in 2009, had under­gone Parkwest’s 36-session “Phase 2” cardiac rehabilitation program after each of those heart events. In the Phase 2 program, patients wear heart moni­tors during their thrice-weekly exer­cise visits.

Each time after “graduating” from Phase 2, Byrd enrolled in the volun­tary Phase 3 maintenance program. In that program, patients do not wear the monitors and are required to immedi­ately report any pains or symptoms to the rehab staff.

So when he confided to Cloinger that he was becoming winded 10 minutes into his usual 20-minute treadmill routine, Byrd said she didn’t hesitate. “She told me, ‘You’d better see your heart doctor right away!’”

While Byrd’s visit to his cardiolo­gist confirmed her suspicions, Cloinger said she was surprised at the extent of the blockage. “He was a walking time bomb,” she said.

When he was discharged from the hospital, Byrd found himself back in familiar surroundings in the cardiac rehab Phase 2 program. But this time there was a twist. Under a new inten­sified program launched just months earlier, he would be going five days a week instead of three, and seven weeks instead of 12.

“It was a no-brainer,” Cloinger said about the new five-day-a-week pro­gram. “We found out after that first class that the results were so good with cholesterol and blood pressure being under better control and body fat going down, and positive results with all the risk factors, why not do it?”

Byrd’s results were indeed remark­able. Over the course of the intensified Phase 2, Byrd saw his blood pressure drop from 130/70 to 114/60. His exer­cise time increased from 34 minutes to 54, and his MET level (Metabolic Equivalent of Task, a measurement of the amount of energy expended during activity) jumped from 2.7 to 4.6 – a 70 percent increase. His BMI (Body Mass Index) went from 32.3 to 30.6.

“The program they set up for me here really worked well because I started out with five minutes on machines, and then Rhonnda would increase it about every week,” said Byrd. “It was kind of difficult at the start. They pushed you to your limit, but not beyond because they always cautioned you to not go beyond what you feel like doing. They very sci­entifically kept adding to it.”