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June 30 2016

Cardiac rehab ‘vets’ bond for health and laughs

Most people don’t choose to hang around the hospital for years on end. But for several men, the dining room at ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital has been a hangout for more than a decade. After exercising in the cardiac rehabilitation gym, one by one a dozen or more men settle in for an hour or so of what might be described as an informal support group.

“It started with a few guys getting together and deciding to have coffee, and it’s become something of an institution,” said John Klopp, 86, of Waukesha.

Klopp first joined the group – all that’s required is that you pull up a chair – 16 years ago. The group has expanded and contracted, holding steady at 15 to 20 people, ages 50 to 80 and beyond. All regularly use the gym as members of the ProHealth Care cardiac rehabilitation maintenance EXCEL exercise program.

EXCEL (EXercise, Counseling and Education for Lifetime) members are cardiac rehabilitation graduates. About 100 people in all participate in EXCEL at Waukesha Memorial, said Julie Stephenson, RN, who is in charge of the cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation gyms at Waukesha Memorial and the Oconomowoc Physician Center, at Highway 67 and I-94.

“They have a lot of passion and enthusiasm,” Stephenson said of the Waukesha Memorial EXCEL and coffee group members. “Their health care stories are very impressive. They’re incredibly supportive of one another and are very aware if someone doesn’t show up.”

Three mornings a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday — the men stroll into the dining room after their workouts in the rehab gym. They greet each other and join in conversations about anything from gardening and vacations to politics.

“We exercise, talk smart and gather useless knowledge,” said Jim Greene, 67, of Waukesha, who joined the group almost nine years ago and might just be the group’s fastest talker. “We also check on each other. If someone doesn’t come, we call him, and we call in if we’re not coming.”

They keep a list of each other’s names and numbers in their wallets, which has come in handy on more than one occasion. Several years ago, the Janesville police used the list to call a member of the group when another of the men was found far from home, disoriented and unable to provide a contact name.

“We’ve got guys from Pewaukee, Mukwonago, Brookfield — all over,” said Walter Tetzlaff, 80, of Waukesha, who’s been coming for exercise and coffee for eight years. “The camaraderie is really strong. It’s an extended family. We have a real affinity for ProHealth because this is where they sewed us back together.”

Many of the men have had surgery at the hospital.

“It’s just like people in the service who’ve gone through combat: They bond,” Klopp said. “Everyone has a little different story to tell about their heart.”

“We’ve tried all the doctors!” David Mahler, 80, of Mukwonago joked. “We talk a lot about the hospital and the care.” Mahler has been participating in the group for eight years.

Coffee time provides motivation to use the gym. Their families are all in favor of that, several men in the group noted.

“My wife feels comfortable about me exercising at the hospital,” said Gary Voss, 74, of Pewaukee, who’s been an EXCEL and coffee group member for nine years.

Mahler agreed: “Our families realize the benefits, and mine will ask, ‘Aren’t you going today?’ ”

The men said that while they could work out at a health club, they prefer to come to the hospital. They know the ProHealth rehabilitation services staff in the gym, can ask the staff questions about health care and, most important, if they have a health issue while at the gym, they know that it will be immediately recognized and treated.

“Everyone knows we’re here for heart problems,” Greene said. “One time I was exercising and didn’t feel well. The staff put a monitor on me and I ended up getting a stent at the hospital the same day.”

Eugene Niebrugge likes the interaction with the rehab team.

“People treat you with respect. They understand us,” said Niebrugge, 68, of Waukesha, who met the rest of the guys for the first time last December. “It helps you get back into life.”

Even though individuals in the group over the years have had different life experiences – the group has included a mail carrier, professor, accountant, mechanic, judge, lawyer, doctor, you name it – they have come to be pretty good friends.

The men have shared time together for holidays, birthdays and funerals. They’ve also shared a lot of laughs, some at the expense of the cardiac rehab staff. They chuckled as they remembered the time a rehab patient celebrated his successful “graduation” from rehabilitation by bringing an enormous box of donuts to the gym, which the staff promptly confiscated.

It’s really pretty simple, Klopp concluded: “I like the company. There’s concern for each other.”

To learn more about ProHealth Heart & Vascular Care’s cardiac rehabilitation program or the EXCEL maintenance program, visit ProHealthCare.org/Heart or call 262-928-8800.

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For more than a century, ProHealth Care has been the health care leader in Waukesha County and surrounding areas, providing outstanding care across a full spectrum of services. The people of ProHealth Care strive to continuously improve the health and well-being of the community by combining skill, compassion and innovation. The ProHealth family includes ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital, ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, ProHealth Rehabilitation Hospital of Wisconsin, ProHealth Medical Group, the UW Cancer Center at ProHealth Care, Moreland Surgery Center, ProHealth AngelsGrace Hospice, ProHealth Home Care, ProHealth West Wood Health & Fitness Center and ProHealth Regency Senior Communities. Learn more at ProHealthCare.org.