Cardiac Patients Prescribed Laughter, Fun Following Surgery

Chicago – Soon cardiac surgery patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute will find recreation listed among their post-surgery instructions. Kim Lebowitz, PhD, director, Cardiac Behavioral Medicine at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute says prescribing “fun” is a key component of an innovative new program called SMART Heart (Stress Management and Recreational Therapy for Heart Patients), which launches at the hospital later this month. Through a host of activities like playing board games, watching comedies and listening to music, the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute will leverage SMART Heart as a way to help patients manage stress and reduce what can be for many, a heavy emotional burden following surgery. Cardiac surgery patients are at greater risk of experiencing depression and anxiety, which can hinder their recovery. 

Smart Heart

“When we think about heart surgery, most people think you go into the hospital, have surgery and then start to work on the physical recovery,” said Lebowitz. “Few people recognize the significant psychological burden associated with heart surgery. Two out of every five cardiac patients are clinically depressed. These patients are less likely to comply with recommended care and are more likely to have serious complications, including re-hospitalization and even increased death.”

The program centers on a specially designed room where patients and their families can spend time together engaging in relaxing activities like watching television, reading books, or simply talking. Most of the time, activities are unstructured, but there are also group exercises, like movie matinees, that will be available throughout the week.

Additionally, SMART Heart teaches patients and members of their support network coping mechanisms such as relaxation and distraction techniques like humor. Recognizing that not all patients are well enough to leave their rooms, there is a SMART Heart cart that will deliver books, DVDS, games and music to patient rooms.

While SMART Heart is premised on recreation, Lebowitz adds that it is not all fun and games. There is science behind its inception and launch. As she explains, research studies have shown that depressed cardiac patients are more likely to smoke, eat a poor diet, and consume alcohol. These unhealthy lifestyle choices, combined with stress and anxiety, can be detrimental and can add to complications that hamper recovery. However, studies have also shown that humor and optimism trigger psychological well-being and good health, which can help recovery from surgery.

Smart Heart Lebowitz says SMART Heart is among the only program of its kind in the country, but adds that more experts are beginning to recognize the importance of cardiac behavioral therapy, which has been an area of specialty at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute for more than six years. The program is focused on providing patients a comprehensive service that addresses and treats the risk factors and consequences of cardiovascular disease that involve behaviors, emotions, and stress. The program helps patients and loved ones adjust to the diagnosis of cardiovascular disease, prepare for and recover from cardiac surgery, and learn ways to adapt a heart-healthy lifestyle in mind, body, and spirit.

“One of our main goals is to decrease the emotional distress that can often occur following cardiac surgery,” said Lebowitz. “Instead of spending hours alone in their rooms, patients will have immediate access to recreational activities and entertainment in a space where they can also interact with other patients of similar experiences. They will have the opportunity to distract themselves from the stress of being a patient, which we hope will translate into improved mood, a better patient experience and potentially more successful outcomes following surgery.”

To learn more about SMART Heart, visit

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