Going in for heart surgery can be a lonely and scary journey, so it can help if you have someone to talk to, someone who's been there, knows the fear and pain -- then survived and has walked the arduous path of recovery.

Thirty years ago, a group of Rogue Valley heart-surgery survivors formed a chapter of Mended Hearts so they could both comfort and inform heart patients about what to expect in the hospital and at home in the healing process -- and how to create a more heart-friendly lifestyle with improved diet, exercise and lowering of stress.

Today, the local organization has 80 volunteers, including 11 who visit patients in area hospitals as they prepare for heart surgery.

Mended Heart volunteer Marlyn Taylor, 73, learned about his heart troubles suddenly during the stress of having his house burn down.

"I wrote it off as acid reflux, but they rushed me to the hospital in Medford. I had clogged arteries and realized I wasn't going home. I was asked if I'd like a visit from a former patient who had gone through the same process, and he answered all my medical questions, " says Taylor.

"I was able to look him in the face and see someone vibrant, active, moving forward. I wasn't worried so much about the surgery as about what happens afterward. He said it was not only good, it was better than before surgery."

"It's more fear of the unknown than anything, the first time you learn you have this horrible heart disease, " says cardiothoracic physician George Wilkinson of Rogue Regional Medical Center, who has worked with Mended Hearts volunteers for 25 years.

"It's no walk in the park, " Wilkinson says. "There's some depression, but it's all temporary; things do get better. That's what volunteers teach them, and they aren't going to believe it when told by a 25-year-old nurse who runs marathons."

Mended Hearts volunteers talk about the importance of helping patients overcome their sense of dread and of giving back to the heart community. They also talk about how much better life is after surgery, being able to feel that energy that comes with oxygen-rich blood flowing from newly opened arteries.

Former disc jockey Grant Tressell, 57, of Central Point, who briefly died during his heart attack and says he visited with deceased kinfolk, notes, "I tell my story and try to comfort patients. It's my way to pay it forward. I asked God, just give me a second chance and a way to help these folks."

He calls volunteers "visiting angels."

Bill Callendar, 82, of Medford, says, "It's very uplifting and rewarding. My wife tells me I'm very different when I come back. I pray with them and talk about how I was given a 90 percent chance of being dead in three years, and here I am, alive and healthy."

Bruce Hanson, 74, editor of the Mended Hearts newsletter, says patients need the most support, not for the surgery, but for the long recovery process, which should involve lots of cardio rehab and taking of the proper drugs. High percentages of heart patients skimp on both.

"The volunteers provide emotional support, " says Amanda Abrams, clinical manager of the RRMC Heart Center. "We can't give them that hope and light at the end of the tunnel. Most patients don't realize the magnitude of what they're getting into. But with volunteers in the process, we can heal the whole heart."

Mended Hearts volunteers will hold their 30th anniversary meeting at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 18, at RRMC's Smullin Center. It will honor cardiologist Minor Matthews. It's free and open to the public.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.