Matters of the Heart: Helping a family member with heart disease

Friday, February 6, 2009 — Cam Patterson, M.D., chief of cardiology for UNC Health Care, explains five things you can do to help a friend or family member who has heart disease.

Written by Margot Carmichael Lester for UNC Health Care



Cam Patterson, M.D.

When someone we love is hurting, it’s only natural to want to help them in every way possible. If a family member is dealing with a cardiac disease, our ability to help can be hindered by a number of factors. But with a little effort, we can overcome these challenges and provide the right kind of support.

“When doctors send our patients home, we often assume that everything we say and suggest and prescribe is going to be followed up on,” admits Dr. Cam Patterson, chief of cardiology at the University of North Carolina Hospitals in Chapel Hill. “But there are all kinds of ways an excellent clinical plan can be derailed.”

To keep that from happening, Patterson suggests that family members do the following:

  1. Understand the illness. The most common obstacle is not having enough information on the condition. Start by consulting with the cardiologist about your role in rehabilitation and recovery. It’s also a good idea to talk to your loved one about how much she or he is willing to share with you, and by gauging how well she or he understands the condition.
  2. Manage medications and follow-up appointment. With new routines and medications, patients can get frustrated. This is where family members can be a huge help. Make sure you understand the purpose, dosage and side-effects of each medication, and that you are aware of all appointments for doctor visits and cardiac rehab sessions.
  3. Participate in lifestyle changes. Most cardiac patients have to make significant changes in exercise and diet. Success rates skyrocket when a family member or friend participates. For instance, the American Heart Association reports that people are 76 percent more likely to stay on their walking program if someone else is counting on them.
  4. Watch for emotional responses. It’s not uncommon for cardiac patients to become depressed or go into denial. If your loved one becomes angry or withdrawn, or if you notice other major changes in his or her personality, talk about it together. And if you’re really concerned talk to the cardiologist, nurses or any primary care provider. Even clergy members can help.
  5. Get active. Activity levels will be limited for most patients, but it’s important for family members to help them get on with their lives. Reintroduce your parent or spouse to what they do on a day to day basis, like going back to church or working on a hobby – the things that make life fulfilling.

And there’s something you can do for yourself, too. Since heart disease has a genetic component, it’s important for children and siblings to know their heart health status by making an appointment with a physician. For spouses, it’s important to make sure you have your own support system – family, friends, clergy, support groups, etc. – to help you manage the emotions you may encounter in caring for a loved one. You can’t help if you’re not healthy yourself!

“It’s important to realize that your family’s going to have to make adjustments because of this severe illness, but you can’t let it get in the way of being a family,” Patterson says.

Patients with serious conditions like heart disease often feel alone or don’t want to be burdens on their families. Following these steps can help you support your loved one on the road back to a full and meaningful life.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047,


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