Hearts and Minds

Paul Lowinger


The fast young therapists and the slower patients filled the barn-size room, the heart of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation at Park Hospital . Some of the patients limped or carried canes. The sounds of exercise echoed. The disabled wanabee athletes glistened with sweat, tossed balls and skied on the Nordic track. Therapists applied electric currents, massaged and placed ice packs on damaged muscles.

Meanwhile at the other end of the room, the elderly arrived for their cardiac rehabilitation. Like the yin and yang, a cardiac nurse and an exercise physiologist greeted the white haired clients who helloed each other, weighed themselves and recorded their p ulse. Then they had their blood pressure measured by Carl, the short haired, muscular trainer and red haired Connie, the thin angular nurse.

"Get your mats and let's start with pelvic crunches," Carl said smiling at the Monday five o'clock line of nine heart attack survivors and one wife of a survivor. "We'll do twenty-five."

A late arrival weighed in as the routine continued, "Ok, let's rotate our shoulders." Carl modeled the familiar motion and the class was moving with a congenial unity.

Toes tapped, heads rotated and arms flapped like chicken wings. Everyone marched in place for a while and then Carl gestured toward the treadmills, stationary bicycles, arm bikes, muscle training equipment, pulleys and free weights as he announced, "You're warmed up now."

Connie, the nurse blinked at a heart monitor screen that showed several electrocardiograms from the miniature recording device worn by the new patients. Sometimes her friendly freckled face showed a painful sensitivity that offered or invited confidences as she maneuvered among the fearful or bored cardiacs.

"I hate my kids, two boys, a year and a half and three. I need Prozac to stay with them," she told a widow who listened and said she'd sometimes felt that way too.

The cardiacs wore leotards, flowered blouses, checked shirts, workout clothes and running shoes for their journey by treadmill and exercycle. The aerobic fountain of youth was accompanied by noise and vibration, the burps and belches of survival. Several seventy year olds, but also the fifties and sixties and one at 82 were linked by mind and muscle.

The full figured wife exercised because her husband was in the class recovering from cardiac bypass surgery. She u was waiting until after Christmas to tell the doctor about her own chest pain. In the meantime she glanced from her exercycle toward a lean classic featured cyclist who nodded as their eyes engaged briefly.

A rotund man whose darting brown eyes were neutralized by a thatch of a freeform gray beard said, "I'm on the waiting list for senior housing if the illegal aliens don't get it all." He had used all his flower power in the Summer of Love and now was a disabled bus driver who worried about his liver. He got a pacemaker after his heart attack but maybe he'd need a heart or liver transplant. He was on a treadmill walking at 4.5 miles an hour as he talked to Fern who was moving at three miles per hour on the next treadmill.

Diminutive Fern was serious when she said, "I can stay in my house as long as I don't run out of money. Maybe I should get a reverse mortgage." Fern meditated, volunteered at an AIDS hospice and read the sacred Tibetan texts in a Buddhist study group. She wore a Byzantine cross that had belonged to her mother.

Carlos finished a set of arm presses at the weight machine when he looked up and saw Morton releasing the overhead metal limbs of a machine that you pulled down to strengthen your upper back. He said," Let me show you my poem later. I finished it last night just after I got back from Cincinnati."

Morton didn't answer but his round cherubic face darkened as he watched Fern slip from the moving tread mill and fall to the floor. The casual conversations of the cardiacs stopped.

"Arragh," Fern gasped and she reached out like a drowning swimmer. Connie, the nurse and Carl, the trainer ran to her side for the rescue lifting her into a wheelchair. She was pale and anxious; her eyes were closed and her breathing was noisy. They did an electrocardiogram before sending her to the hospital emergency room where she had been before.

Exercise stopped. Morton said, "I hope she'll be all right. When we came in today, I sat next to her and she said she was tired. I told her to tell the nurse and maybe she could go home."

"I know her daughter. I'll call her later and find out how she's doing," Lucy said.

The worried cardiacs looked at the nurse and trainer. Connie's eyes clouded and filled with tears as she said, "No, oh, no."She was weeping as she was escorted from the scene by the woman in charge of rehabilitation who had suddenly appeared.

Exercise resumed despite the turmoil and at six o'clock it was time for relaxation. The group went to an inner quiet room where more stretching was done. In the last phase they lay on their mats for the separate relaxation of each limb and the other body parts.

Carl then guided everyone to an image of complete satisfaction in an idyllic setting, a kind of nonsectarian prayer, "I wish for peace and tranquility in my life and my world as I see the vision of wholesome serenity."

Twelve people and a dog came to the next class Tuesday at five.

Lucy had brought her Irish Setter announcing, "I was out walking with Rusty and I didn't have time to take him home. He's very well trained and won't make trouble." Rusty was petted by several dog lovers and looked pleased.

Carl stared at the assembly. "Fern died last night in the hospital, a massive stroke.The memorial will be at Wilson and Wayde. The article in the paper about her says she was related to President Hoover. Let's get our mats."