Your recovery after a heart attack doesn’t end when you leave the hospital. To protect your heart over the long term, follow these steps.
Having a heart attack is life-altering experience. More than likely, you’ll spend the days and weeks after your discharge from the hospital flooded with new information on your heart health and medical care. You’ll also be learning to cope with your identity as a heart attack survivor.
Although everything may feel up in the air at this point, there are some pivotal steps you can take during this period that will both hasten your recovery and protect your heart health over the long term, says Dr. Patrick O’Gara, cardiologist at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
1 Know the warning signs
Cardiac rehab programs offer supervised exercise
“The No. 1 thing I tell patients is now that you’ve been through the process, it is critical for you and your family to be able to recognize heart attack symptoms so you can call for emergency medical service right away if you think you are having another one,” says Dr. O’Gara. Every minute counts to prevent lasting damage from a heart attack, so getting prompt treatment is essential.
2 Follow your medication plan
The day of your discharge, you probably walked out the hospital with a shopping bag of new medicines and instructions on how to take them. Keeping track of all your pills can be complicated and frustrating. But, says Dr. O’Gara, “the medicines to keep your stent open, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and control your heart rate are essential to your health in the early recovery phases of heart attack. Don’t hesitate to call your doctor if you have any questions at all on your medicines.”
3 Make lifestyle changes
As part of your overall recovery plan, it is essential to adopt a healthy lifestyle. So, if you smoked before your heart attack, make it a priority to quit. Your health care team can find programs and resources to help you. In addition, following a heart-healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, and maintaining good control of your blood pressure and blood sugar will help lower your cardiovascular risk.
Don’t wait—it could be a heart attack
Call 911 if you have these symptoms:
4 Take part in a cardiac rehab program
Dr. O’Gara also emphasizes the importance of enrolling in a cardiac rehabilitation program one to two weeks after your discharge from the hospital. Typical programs include three hour-long sessions per week for a period of 12 weeks. In addition to helping you develop an exercise routine in a safe, monitored environment, rehab programs offer assistance with dietary changes and coaching on post–heart attack lifestyle changes. You’ll also benefit from the support of other people who have been through similar experiences. Some programs offer groups for family members as well. Your health plan will cover this first phase of cardiac rehab after a heart attack. Many rehab centers also offer extended maintenance programs. While these extra sessions can be valuable for preventing backsliding into unhealthy habits, they are generally not covered by insurance.
5 Communicate with your health care team
Before your heart attack you may have had one primary care doctor you saw only when you had a problem. Now you may be at the center of a network of multiple providers all charged with overseeing your care and well-being. This is your care team. Fortunately for you, it’s their job to stay in touch and communicate with one another about what you need and how you’re doing. The most important fact for you to know is who your “go-to” person is when you have a problem.
You can also aid your recovery by bringing along your spouse, family mem-
bers, or others who are close to you when you talk with your health care team. These people can provide support by helping you to stick with the medication plan, adopt lifestyle changes, and adjust to your new health care routine.