Peer-to-Peer Support Organization Connects Johns Hopkins Patients to Volunteers Who Have Also Experienced Heart Conditions

Mended Hearts provides bedside support to patients with cardiac issues and their caregivers.

Mended Hearts Program at Suburban Hospital hero
Published in Community Health - Community Health Stories

When Carol came out of open-heart surgery at Suburban Hospital, she says the drugs, the pain and the shock made her extremely emotional. Shortly after the surgery, Carol was visited by Suburban Hospital employee Karin Bertozzi, who volunteers with Mended Hearts, a peer-to-peer support organization that connects patients to volunteers who have also experienced heart conditions.

“Karin came in, and she started telling me that she had gone through it,” says Carol. “She said how I was feeling was normal. Talking to her took me out of a dark place, and it was wonderful to talk to a person who lived through it.”

Carol was treated for a heart attack at Johns Hopkins Howard County Medical Center. She was then referred to Suburban Hospital for a triple bypass surgery last September. Carol says she has other medical conditions, but her heart issues have been the most challenging, and surprised her because she considers herself an active person. The heart attack happened right before she was scheduled to take a dive trip in Honduras.

“After the surgery, around Christmas, I went into a depression. I knew it could happen, but I thought I was the one escaping it,” Carol says. “I felt a bit of shame when I had a heart attack. Karin helped me to realize that it is all part of it. I wasn’t unique in feeling depressed, and Karin gave me a light to go toward when I fell into mine.”

Carol says there are only a few women in her rehabilitation class. She says she’s noticed that women experience cardiac issues differently than men.

“I didn’t know I was having a heart attack because the pain was in my stomach, and then went to my right side,” Carol says. “As a female, you need to know that it doesn’t feel the same. We don’t feel the same way, we don’t react the same way, and we don’t recover the same way.”

Carol says she is most grateful to Karin because she was so generous to her and her son.

“My son came to visit me from Pennsylvania, and she was very kind to him. That meant a lot to me,” Carol says. “As someone who has been a caregiver, I know the caregiver sometimes gets left out. She didn’t leave him in the shadows. She called and encouraged him a couple of times when he felt overwhelmed. Karin told him what to expect and supported him. She never left him out of the conversation.”

Bertozzi, a development and stewardship coordinator within the Suburban Hospital Foundation, had emergent open-heart surgery at Suburban Hospital almost 10 years ago, after fainting in her local grocery store. Following her surgery, she was visited by a Mended Hearts volunteer.

“He gave me support every day,” Bertozzi says. “It was nice to talk to someone who had been through a similar cardiac procedure. He helped me become more hopeful.”

Six months after her cardiac event, Bertozzi started volunteering with Mended Hearts. Through Mended Hearts, Bertozzi meets patients in person, via phone or by video, and sometimes even attends follow-up appointments with them. She also arranges speakers for Mended Hearts monthly support meetings via Zoom.

Bertozzi says that connecting Mended Hearts volunteers with patients who have cardiac issues is an integral part of the recovery process. She says the patients are often encouraged when they see people thriving and giving back.

“They see us participating in life again,” Bertozzi says. “We show them that although they’ve hit a big bump in the road, they will get back to a beautiful life.”

Amy Dukovcic is vice president of Mended Hearts Washington D.C.’s chapter 94 and associate regional director for the northern mid-Atlantic. She says she has seen the value of Mended Hearts in several different ways. She has witnessed how well patients respond to the visits and the support. As a family member, she has seen how Mended Hearts turned her father around in a way she couldn’t.

“Mended Hearts gives you hope that you are going to get better,” Dukovcic says. “We meet the patients right in their rooms. There’s value in connecting with people who already know what you’re going through. They understand the trials and tribulations and how patients feel, and provide support and encouragement.”

Thomas Matthew, director of Johns Hopkins cardiothoracic surgery at Suburban Hospital, says Mended Hearts is an important program because most patients with cardiac conditions are frightened and on the border of depression.

“It’s common for patients to be depressed because they’re grieving for their past concept of normal life,” Matthew says. “When they meet someone who has been through it and can visit them, they see practically that there’s hope ahead. It allays fears. Mended Hearts volunteers also bring good information about what’s important to do and what not to do. They encourage the patients to do cardiac rehabilitation and to quit smoking.”

Matthew says Mended Hearts volunteers are incredible.

“It’s so special because they’re volunteering to give their time to someone else,” Matthew says. “It’s hard work, but there’s no greater feeling than knowing you’ve given something of yourself.”

Now that Carol has been participating in Mended Hearts for some time, she says her life is focused on recovery.

“In some ways, my heart issue released me. As an Italian woman, I was taught to be a people pleaser. I’m not so much a people pleaser anymore,” Carol says. “It’s given me some freedom to worry less. Instead of putting other people first, I put myself first. I live in the now.”

To learn more about Mended Hearts, visit