When Neale Donald Walsch was told after open-heart surgery that he had had a quintuple rather than quadruple bypass, his first thought was: “Oh, boy, that’s an interesting development.”

Uncertain about his prognosis, post-op melancholy morphed into full-blown depression.

“I really latched onto that depression,” he recalls, describing those first few days in the cardiac care unit after his November 2016 surgery. “Face it; your body has been assaulted. Your heart has been stopped for three to four hours. It’s bound to have a psychological effect.”

More than two years later, Walsch says he feels 10 to 15 years younger than his 74 years.

But he’s mindful that life can change in a heartbeat – literally. And he hasn’t forgotten that it was tough going for a while.

Rudell Harder had a similar experience.

Facing open-heart surgery Aug. 29, 2016, questions swirled in her mind.

“My God, will I get well? What will life be afterward?”

And in the wake of the surgery that replaced her mitrovalve with a pig’s heart valve, Harder’s family also had concerns.

“It’s scary for everybody,” she says. “Families don’t know what they are getting into.”

Thanks to a group of volunteers with Mended Hearts of Southern Oregon, both Walsch and Harder had someone to guide them through their pre-op fears and offer hope that life indeed goes on after open-heart surgery.

Many of the volunteers are former patients who have "been there, done that,” and lived to tell about it. In their role as visiting volunteers, caregivers also have an ally as they deal with their loved ones’ new normal.

“Hearing encouraging words from someone who says, ‘I’ve been where you’ve been,’ was wonderful,” says Harder. “They put our minds at ease.”

Mended Hearts’ mission is to give insight and encouragement to the cardiac patients facing a very “scary” diagnosis, and the caregivers on pins and needles about their loved one’s prognosis.

Chris Kloek knows first-hand the role a Mended Heart volunteer can play in the life of a caregiver. He was at his wife, Nancy’s, side during three open-heart surgeries at three different hospitals. Nancy’s last surgery was in 2000 at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center. In recovery, the couple was visited by a Mended Hearts volunteer.

“We thought it was so great,” Kloek says, adding that there was someone to answer their questions and concerns: “When will the chest stop hurting?” “When can I go back to work?”

In 2009, the Kloeks signed on as Mended Hearts volunteers. Today, Chris is the president of the Southern Oregon chapter, and Nancy serves as treasurer.

“It’s my job to help the patient’s loved one,” says Chris. “It’s usually a spouse, but sometimes it’s a son or daughter. Often they are as worried and stressed as the patient. They are the ones who get to wait in the waiting room during surgery and wonder what’s happening.

“I believe supporting these caregivers ultimately helps the patient,” he adds. “If family is a little more relaxed, that helps the patient be more relaxed.”

Mended Hearts is a Texas-based national program that trains volunteers to shepherd people before, during and after their heart surgeries.

Volunteers guide tours of RRMC’s cardiac care unit and heart center, share what to expect post-op and offer advice on everything from how to hold the heart-shaped pillow over a healing chest to setting up one’s home to ease recovery.

Started at RRMC by Dr. Roger Millar and nurses Sue Naumes and Judi Yates in 1981, the local program operated under the radar and independently for the better part of 35 years. Mended Hearts and Asante joined forces two years ago. The result is a partnership that has added another layer of patient care, says Laura Nicholson, volunteer services coordinator for Asante.

“(Mended Hearts) volunteers are helping better educate cardiac patients,” says Nicholson. “When they get the peer perspective, they seem more compliant.”

With their fears alleviated, and their hopes raised, cardiac patients are more apt to buy into post-surgery cardiac rehabilitation, she adds.

Because of volunteers such as those with Mended Hearts, Nicholson says that Asante has been able to improve patient care without additional expense to the patient.

Harder says that her post-op visits from Mended Hearts volunteer George Brown had a lasting impression on her.

“I knew I had to do the same (for another patient),” she says.

As soon as she was well, she signed up to volunteer. She and her husband, Mike, both 71, are now active volunteers.

Mended Hearts volunteers must be trained and certified before they are allowed to visit patients. In addition, all volunteers are required to undergo the same rigorous screening and training as a prospective Asante hospital employee, says Nicholson.

In addition to an eight-hour orientation, trainees also are required to sit through 12 online educational sessions and participate in continuing education opportunities.

Mended Hearts also hosts a monthly support group and offers 11 free educational seminars each year.

In 2017, Dr. Junyang Lou from Southern Oregon Cardiology, only one of four cardiologists who perform transcatheter aortic valve replacements, explained the procedure commonly known as TAVR to the group. Less invasive than open-heart surgery, a patient typically stays in the hospital just one day.

With that knowledge in hand and a pre-surgery visit from a Mended Hearts volunteer, Jack Hafner was able to face his own TAVR procedure last June with confidence. He had the procedure done Thursday, was released from the hospital Friday morning, and the 88-year-old played nine holes of golf Monday.

An avid golfer who typically walks two miles a day, Hafner admits he had to use a golf cart that day.

The Mended Hearts experience has “meant a lot to me,” says Hafner. So much so, he plans to start training as a volunteer soon.

Relieved to be walking around and doing fine, Walsch says he’s also made a commitment to become a Mended Hearts volunteer.

Like the red-vested volunteer who welcomed him into the “Zipper Club,” he wants to encourage other cardiac patients to wear the zipper-like scar left after open-heart surgery as “a badge of honor.”

Mended Hearts meets from 5:30 to 7 p.m. the third Tuesday of every month in the Smullin Center on the RRMC campus.

For more information, contact Chris and Nancy Kloek at 541-772-8533 or email at ckloek@charter.net. The local chapter also has a website, www.mendedhearts137.org, and a Facebook page, Mended Hearts of Southern Oregon.

— Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.