Nelly initially thought she was having acid reflux, and was embarrassed to have her husband take her to the hospital. But, when her symptoms changed, she didn't waste time getting to the hospital.

SNVMC Cardiac Rehab helps woman get her life back after heart attack

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Imagine helping a person after their darkest hour, that’s the reality for the Cardiac Rehabilitation team at Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center.

Every day, team members works with patients who have suffered life-altering heart episodes, that’s why what they do is recognized during National Cardiac Rehabilitation Week which run from February 11th -17th.
For Nelly Morgan, those services were vital.

Less than a year ago, the mother of five suffered a heart attack. She was 49-years-old at the time, and didn’t realize what was happening.

“I just thought I was having acid reflux,” says Morgan, thinking back on that night last April.

She remembers that evening clearly, “Every Sunday, my daughter and I watch, ‘The Walking Dead.’ We were all excited for the season finale.”

Morgan says during the show, they were watching, jumping up and down, and screaming at the television. She didn’t even realize something was going wrong until she tried to go to bed.

“I have GERD, so I just thought it was acid reflux and kept drinking water,” but after several antacids and glasses of water, Morgan wasn’t so sure, “I didn’t want to wake my husband and have him take me to the hospital. I was feeling embarrassed, what if it was just heartburn?”

But, after nearly two hours and no relief – her body gave some signs she just couldn’t ignore, “My left arm was tingling and numb. It went from my arm to my neck to my jaw, and all of sudden I felt this weight on my chest- like 20 people were sitting on it.”

Morgan’s husband rushed her to the Emergency Department at Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center in Woodbridge. When the team learned of her symptoms, she was immediately rushed back for care, “They hooked me up to the machine and said, ‘Yes, you are having a heart attack.’ I just started crying. I thought, 'Oh My God, I’m going to die.'”

The Prince William County resident didn’t die, Dr. Berenji, an Interventional Cardiologist with the Sentara Heart & Vascular Center performed a Cardiac Catheterization procedure on her clogged artery. Morgan spent the next five days in the hospital before starting therapy and turning her life around with the help of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center.

At first glance, the rehab center looks like any other gym. There are treadmills, recumbent bikes, an elliptical and weights, but one thing you’ll get here, that you won’t with a traditional gym, is a trained team of nurses monitoring your every heartbeat and watching your every step.

“Our goal is getting those patients into a safe exercise program and returning them to their lives,” explains Pamela Rozmajzl, RN. “We have an actual program. There is a progression we go through for each patient, we assess where they are and build from there, increasing along the way.”

In addition to introducing more physical activity into a patient’s life, the rehab has an educational component to improve the quality of life with psychological, physical and educational support after a heart attack or heart procedure, “We have various classes – on everything from medications and their possible side-effects to diet changes and stress management. We also educate them on how to safely progress with their exercises once they leave our 12-week program,” says Rozmajzl.

For Nelly Morgan, this was a period of mixed emotions. She reached a milestone by turning 50, but was scared of having another heart attack. She realized she had a number of risk factors including stress and heredity, “Heart disease runs on my father’s side of the family. He died of a heart attack. His parents died of heart attacks. He had two older brothers and they died of heart attacks.” Morgan thought because she was a woman, she had less chance of following in the family footsteps than male relatives. In addition to genetics, Morgan also realized her diet could have played a role in her condition, “I used to buy frozen food. I never read the back of boxes. The sodium intake in those lunches I would eat all week, they’re small portions, you think, no big deal. But, if you add up a whole week’s worth you realize, ‘I just ate a whole box of salt!’”

Things have now changed. This full-time wife, mother, and student watches her salt intake, gave up soda and has added more vegetables to her family’s life, while doing away with processed foods. As she approaches the one year anniversary of her heart attack, Nelly Morgan is a new woman. She bought a treadmill and walks in the morning and at night, and she tries to have more physical activities for the family. It’s all a part of her new heart-healthy lifestyle, “I don’t want to miss important events in my family’s life. I want to see my daughter graduate from high school and my twins get through kindergarten. It’s those events you want to be around for, so they (my family) play a big part in this transformation.”

And, Morgan says she couldn’t have made this transformation without the help of the Cardiac Rehab team, “They gave me the tools to change my life and be healthier.”

To learn more about the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center or find a cardiologist near you, call 1-800-SENTARA or go to