In cardiac rehab, The Grateful Undead keep on truckin’
These heart disease survivors found lifetime friendships at Baptist Beaches. What a long strange trip it’s been.
Deborah Circelli and Deborah Circelli Published: 6/16/2017
With the sounds of rock n’ roll music filling the exercise room, Mark Muraski yells, “Crank it up” as he walks on the treadmill with King, Flash and Coffee Man.
With nicknames reflecting their professions, interests or even the number of scars on their chests, these men are members of “The Grateful Undead,” a takeoff on the legendary 1960s band. Their name is a darkly humorous reminder of the common thread that bonds them – surviving heart attacks or heart disease.
King, aka Bruce Houck, for example, got his nickname for having the most cardiac events. He had three heart attacks in 1992, 1996 and 2001; open heart bypass surgery in 2002 and has a pacemaker and defibrillator.
“He has more scars than he has skin,” joked Muraski, called Beach Magnet because he once worked as a lifeguard, who had a heart attack in 2003 at age 45. “I only have three stents.”
They tease each other while walking on the treadmills at Baptist Medical Center Beaches Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center, talking freely about politics, health and sports.
But make no mistake about it, they have each other’s back. They take each other to doctor’s appointments, if needed, celebrate birthdays, participate in heart walks and other fundraising events, and even go to rock `n’ roll concerts.
“This is like a support group,” said Lonnie Awerdick, 73, known as Looney, who started in cardiac rehab in 2007 after an aortic valve replacement.
The group, which includes men and women, formed loosely in 2003 with a dozen people, most of them in their 50s who were doing cardiac rehabilitation at Baptist Beaches. Their bond was so strong that they continued in the follow-up program twice a week ever since to encourage each other to exercise. They have T-shirts and bumper stickers with their logo of – appropriately – a heart inside a skeleton.
Their name was born when they were the youngest people in rehab and didn’t like the Big Band music played at the Center.
“We love rock `n’ roll and we’re grateful to be alive,” said Houck, who with other Grateful Undead members started bringing in CDs and then iPods to play their music.
Sara Holloway, coordinator of the rehab center, didn’t give the group a choice but to stay alive, said Lewis Story, 73, known as Flash because he takes a lot of photos of the group. Story started cardiac rehab in 2001 at Baptist Beaches after having a heart attack. His father and grandfather died from a heart attack and his mother had congestive heart failure.
The group fondly calls Holloway “The Warden” because she keeps them in shape.
Many in the group credit Holloway and Pamela Rama, MD, cardiologist for Baptist Heart Specialists and medical director of the program, for saving their lives.
“They really connected with each other and many didn’t have friends who had a cardiac event since they were so young at the time,” said Holloway, who helped start the cardiac rehab program at Beaches in 1993. “There is a lot of research that shows that being connected with a group improves your health and increases longevity.”
Beaches is just one of the cardiac rehab programs at Baptist Health’s area hospitals. Physicians, dietitians and exercise physiologists throughout the system work together to provide patients information about heart health, physical fitness, nutrition and stress management.
Baptist Medical Center Nassau recently opened its new Cardiac Rehabilitation Center on the main hospital campus.
“This keeps us engaged so you don’t lose the lifestyle of exercising,” Houck said. “When you have a heart attack, you are scared to death that you are going to die. But then you talk to people like us who have been through it.”
Dr. Rama said the Grateful Undead inspire each other and other patients at the center to remain healthy and they “share a love for life, good food and fun times.”
“I am proud that I have had the opportunity to take care of a lot of the men and women in this group. Theirs is a special bond,” she said.
Katie Blaylock, 22, who also exercises at the center but is not a member of the group, likes talking to the Grateful Undead and listening to their music despite their age differences. She also enjoys the staff at Baptist Beaches.
“They treat you like family here,” Blaylock said.
The group has added new members over the years, and more are always welcome.
Muraski said he never liked the atmosphere of a traditional gym. “Here, we are all the same and we’ve become best friends,” he added.
Bert Livingston, who has a family history of heart disease, was 48 in 2001 when doctors found he had 99 percent blockage of the “widowmaker," which describes the complete closure of the left anterior descending coronary artery and can result in immediate death.
“This group keeps me alive and mowing the lawn,” said Livingston, who enjoys walking on the treadmill, hence his nickname, TMO, or Treadmill Only. “I’m able to stay on a schedule with a bunch of people who I like.”
Terry Andrews, 70, who is called Parolee because he also volunteers at the center, had quadruple bypass in 2005. He was 57 years old and had a family history of heart disease.
“Anyone who had a heart event should attend cardiac rehab because it gives you the secure feeling of knowing how to exercise,” Andrews said. “Being a part of the Grateful Undead has also given me an enjoyable social life that otherwise I might not have had.
“When you have health problems that come up, you can talk about it and they understand. We are all getting old and falling apart. We thought we were all invincible, but we are not.”