It is easy to feel alone or isolated during any health care procedure. With the help of past patients, the heart-to-heart volunteer program at Houston Methodist The Woodlands provides reassurance and guidance before and after open-heart procedures for patients.


Jeff Westergren, an avid runner who has completed 11 marathons, was one of the first heart procedure patients at Houston Methodist The Woodlands in 2017. Westergren will be 78 years old in March, and he remains active after his recovery, running more than 400 miles last year. He also visits patients once a week in the heart center and ICU at Houston Methodist The Woodlands, sharing a message of encouragement to those in recovery. He says he feels honored to provide a beacon of hope for others navigating a similar path.


“It gives patients hope that they are going to be OK. Here I am seven years later, I am standing up, I am breathing, I am still running and active,” Westergren said. “It lets them know that there is a path to recovery, and it helps me in my own recovery to know that I am helping others.”


Westergren was one of the first heart-to-heart volunteers, and staff say he is happy to train other volunteers and help grow the program. He also maintains a wonderful relationship with his heart physician, Dr. Ali Rizvi, and the cardiovascular surgeon who performed his procedure, Dr. Lucas Duvall. He explained that Dr. Rizvi encouraged him to continue to run, and that during check-ups, his heart and valve continue to perform great. Westergren sees the opportunity to continue to interact with the team who took care of him in the operating room as a great reminder of how far he has come during recovery.


“The nursing staff was absolutely wonderful, I just can’t say enough about them,” Westergren said. “Every week when I am in the ICU visiting patients, I am always sure to go in and give the clinical staff that took care of me a hug. I want to hug them to thank them for what they did for me and what they keep doing for others. I think it helps them to know that what they do as nurses is important to us as patients.”


Westergren’s weekly visits as a part of the heart-to-heart program have also become a highlight for the staff on the heart team.


“He feels like family at this point. We love it when Jeff comes to the unit, he brings us so much joy and hope. It is so encouraging for the staff,” said Kathryn Hobbs, MSN, RN, CCRN, cardiovascular surgery nurse navigator at Houston Methodist The Woodlands. “We want to know patients are doing well after their procedures, and being able to have Jeff as a reminder of some of the great patient outcomes that our staff have contributed to is a big boost.”


To celebrate Heart Month and further encourage messages of hope by uniting patients and care teams, Houston Methodist The Woodlands brought together a large group of previous patients at the inaugural Heart Heroes event on Feb. 23. Westergren was a featured speaker at the event as well, sharing his story with the audience.


“Bringing patients and families together with the staff who provided unparalleled care during their hospital stay is a great way to provide a full circle moment to the Houston Methodist experience,” said Kerrie Guerrero, DNP, MBA, RN, NE-BC, vice president and chief nursing officer, Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital. “We want patients to know that the care for our community does not stop when they leave our hospital. It is so special to have the opportunity to welcome patients back and celebrate their journey to wellness with our team and to see the vast impact our team has on the community in one event.”


Westergren says he was honored to be a part of this inaugural event, and he encourages all heart patients to share their story with others to demonstrate that no one has to go through this alone.