Cardiac rehab gets avid runner back in the race

Tom Fethe pictured finishing the Covenant Health Knoxville Half Marathon.
Tom pictured finishing the March Covenant Health Half Marathon.

He didn’t look the part: small frame, slender, a runner’s build. Not the kind you’d expect to have heart trouble of any kind. Still, heart disease caught up with Tom Fethe just the same – but only for a while. Just three months after a quadruple bypass, he was back to running. It was an achievement, he said, made possible by the cardiac rehab staff of Parkwest Cardic Rehab at Fort Sanders West. “There is almost a team spirit here among these people,” the 67-year-old minister said recently. “It starts with the people who are working here – the support staff, the nurses and exercise physiologists. But it also extends to the participants in the wellness and rehab programs. They all care about each other.”

It’s such a closely knit support system that when Fethe ran in the Friends of the Smokies’ Cades Cove Loop last November, he was joined by three staffers instrumental in his recovery – registered nurses Amy Dale and Karen Kirkland, and exercise physiologist Rhonnda Cloinger. Fethe finished third in his age group in the 10-mile run. Meanwhile, in the 5K race, Cloinger won her age group and Dale and Kirkland, who did a mixture of running and walking, finished 22nd and 23rd in their age group, respectively. “It was great to get there and see them – it’s that support,” said Fethe. “That’s encouraging. And at the end, you get high-fives and you celebrate your finish. I was proud of them and they were proud of me.”

Fethe’s first hint of heart trouble came more than two years ago when he found he could no longer run as far as he once did without chest pain. When he mentioned he had lost both grandfathers and a brother to heart attacks at an early age, his internist urged him to see a cardiologist. “I put off going to a cardiologist for months,” said Fethe. “I thought, ‘Nah, I’m in good shape! I can run! I might stop every now and then, but I eat right. I’m in good shape.’”

Finally, at the urging of a friend he went to a cardiologist, who ordered a heart catheterization. That imaging revealed four blockages in Fethe’s arteries, including two that were 90 percent obstructed. “I remember the next day telling myself, ‘I want a second opinion. I’m sure he’s wrong,’” he said. “Then, I decided, ‘No, Tom, you’re kidding yourself. I need the surgery.’ So I had quadruple bypass surgery in the fall of 2016 and began that slow process of recovery.”

Weeks later, he entered the 12-week, 36-session cardiac rehab program at Fort Sanders West. “When you hear, ‘you’ve got to have quadruple bypass surgery,’ you wonder, ‘what does that mean for my future?’” said Fethe. “In my case, it meant recovery. Taking little steps, walking, walking more. Finally, my cardiologist said I could start running but start slow, do a little bit at a time, and work up to it. And that’s what I did.”

“He’s the whole package,”Cloinger said of Fethe. “Even while he was still on a monitor in cardio rehab, I knew he wanted to get back to running. So when the doctor gave the OK, we had him on the treadmill jogging before he had finished all his sessions here to make sure he was stable.
“Tom was a good patient,” she added. “He had the desire, but he was a ‘patient patient, in that aspect. He listened to what we had to say, and he put his trust in us and said, ‘when you guys say it’s ok, it’s ok.’ He wanted to push harder but he understood it just wasn’t time. I’m all about people being eager to progress, but sometimes their hearts just aren’t ready.”

Fethe was ready sooner than most, likely because he was in such good shape before the surgery. And he’s still at it, finishing second in his age group in the half marathon event at the 2019 Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon, where Fethe ran his best time since his early 60s. “I thank God that I still have life because this could have had a very different outcome,” he said. “So I’m thankful to God for sparing me and giving me these good doctors and good nurses and good rehab program. If this had happened 50 or 100 years ago, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Parkwest Cardic Rehab Restores Heart Health

Cardiac support staff pictured with Tom.
Cardiac rehab support staff pictured with Tom
Fethe are, left to right, Rhonnda Cloinger,
Karen Kirkland, and Amy Dale.

Cardiac rehabilitation is a physician supervised program for people who have either congenital or acquired heart disease. Cardiac rehab can often improve functional capacity, reduce
symptoms, and create a sense of well-being for patients. A physician may prescribe cardiac rehabilitation for a patient in certain situations, including heart attack and congestive heart failure.

Parkwest Cardiac Rehab at Fort Sanders West offers a cardiac rehabilitation
program designed to meet the needs of individual patients. The program is supervised by a cardiac physician and a team of cardiac professionals. The goal of cardiac rehabilitation is to help patients reverse their symptoms and maximize cardiac function, so the length of the program depends on the patient’s specific needs, condition and progress.

Cardiac rehabilitation includes, but is not limited to, the following activities:

  • Establishing a progressive exercise program to build fitness and functional capacity
  • Providing educational classes to help the patient change lifestyle habits as needed, such as smoking cessation or nutrition classes
  • Offering stress management and anxiety reduction techniques
  • Counseling and educating the patient about his/her specific heart condition/ disease and the best management approach for that specific condition
  • Preparing the patient to return to work by equipping him/her to meet the physical and psychological demands of the job

Parkwest Cardiac Rehabilitation is located at 220 Fort Sanders West Blvd., Building 2, Suite 205, in west Knoxville. For information, call (865) 531-5560.

Heart disease: Do you look (or feel) the part?

At 5 feet 8 inches tall and a lean 150 pounds, Tom Fethe believed himself to be the picture of health. His heart proved him wrong, prompting a quadruple bypass. “A friend once told me, ‘You are the last person I would have expected to have heart disease,’” said Fethe, who lost both grandfathers to heart attacks early in their lives. “I thought I was exempt because I was active. But
there are other factors like genetics, and I sometimes think that trumps them all.”

“It can and often does,” says Rhonnda Cloinger, exercise physiologist at Parkwest Cardiopulmonary Rehab at Fort Sanders West. “Heart disease is not very picky,” she said. “Unfortunately, you can do everything in your power to hold off heart disease, but sometimes it just happens. Sometimes it’s not plaque in the arteries. It could be a valve problem. It could be a problem with the heart rhythm. So it’s very individualistic.”

Coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, congenital heart defects and others are all conditions
described as cardiovascular disease. According to the American Heart Association, half of all U.S. adults have some type of cardiovascular disease. The symptoms depend on what form of the disease you have and may be different for men and women. You may not even know you have cardiovascular disease until you have a heart attack, stroke or congestive heart failure.

With so many potential causes of heart problems, it can be difficult to recognize what exactly is going wrong. In general, be alert for any of the following symptoms, which can indicate blocked arteries, arrhythmias, congenital defects, weak heart muscle, infection or valve

  • Shortness of breath with exertion or at rest
  • Chest pain that comes on with exertion, but subsides at rest
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Swelling in hands, arms, legs, ankles, feet or abdomen
  • Pain in neck, back, jaw, upper abdomen or throat
  • Chest pain, tightness, pressure or discomfort
  • Pain, numbness, weakness or coldness in arms or legs
  • Dizziness, light headedness or fainting
  • Slow or racing heartbeat
  • Rashes
  • Dry or persistent cough

Keep in mind, however, Cloinger’s warning that heart disease is very “individualistic” and symptoms can vary widely. Chest pain, fainting and shortness of breath may require emergency medical care. “Don’t assume that just because you’re active or lean that everything’s good,” advises Fethe. “Get things checked out. When you have something that causes you concern,
don’t assume that something is harmless. I could’ve been a lot worse because I kept coming up with reasons why my chest hurt when I ran and reasons why I couldn’t run as far as I once did without stopping. I was rationalizing those things away.”