Director of Mended Hearts
United States of America
Established in 1951 with its headquarters in Albany, Georgia in the southern USA, The Mended Hearts, Inc. (MHI) is the world’s largest cardiovascular patient support network with a membership that has grown from more than 6,000 in 2018 to more than 90,000 today and on trajectory to have 100,000 members by December 2022.
Who are the members of MHI? They are all very much like their director, Al Voss, who joined in 2016 after experiencing a heart attack – dedicated, driven, focused. They are made up of volunteer patients and caregivers. When Al isn’t on one of his frequent trips or speaking engagements, his dog Stella (an English Retriever) provides steady office support, lying peacefully at the office door. In fact, Stella became a local celebrity when the TV station that featured the organization included her in their story too.
1 minute to live
“Shortness of breath was my only symptom. After surgery, I learned that I had had “1 minute to live” due to the extensive plaque build-up in my arteries and the rupture in one of the two branches (circumflex) of my left main coronary artery.”
Understanding the twists and turns in his story gets to the core of Al’s character and determination. Retired at 61 after a successful career in accounting, he was 63-years-old when he underwent surgery and had his first contact with the organization he now leads.
But the real “wake-up call” he says, was the stroke he had in August 2016, just one day after becoming a volunteer at the organization that helped him on his post-surgery journey.
Support. Educate. Advocate.
“Welcome back, we’re glad you’re here, and you’re now the chapter President.” This was the greeting that led to Al quickly becoming the leader of his local Mended Hearts® chapter and paved the way towards him becoming the organization’s Director.
In MHI, each cluster of volunteers in a particular area or city is called a chapter, and they are usually based at a hospital. Chapter volunteers who want to provide peer-to-peer support to other heart patients become highly trained accredited volunteers who meet with patients and families in the hospital and virtually to provide them support and education.
Volunteers can provide practical reminders about taking medication, the importance of following up on doctors’ visits, and steps to take towards a healthier lifestyle. Often, volunteers are a resource for coping with the anxiety and depression that affects between 40 and 70% of heart patients.
Initial patient-volunteer visits usually last between five and seven minutes. Volunteers who do in-person visits go through tailored training and eight tests. Annual training classes help volunteers stay up-to-speed and keep the support they offer relevant. At least half of patients go on to request follow-up visits and want to know more about what they should and shouldn’t do in this new phase of their lives. With MHI’s Welcome Home program, intensive support is available for the first twelve weeks after a heart event. No question is off limits including practical ones such as ‘can I mow my lawn again’?
Accredited visitors and local chapter volunteers are supported by just eight staff members who oversee the running of 248 chapters in nearly as many cities. How can so much be accomplished with such a slim outfit? “They live the mission,” Al says of the staff. “They are outstanding. They aim to support, educate, and advocate and we leave no stone unturned.”
“The heart surgery didn’t scare me, not as much as the stroke did. My memory loss was frightening. I couldn’t drive. The thought of having to depend on others for care or ending up in a nursing home made me change my habits related to nutrition and exercise, for example.”
He counts himself lucky a second time because his stroke occurred in a public place. Police and ambulance came quickly to his rescue and doctors promptly attended to him at the hospital. Speed matters when it comes to recognizing the signs of a stroke as the F.A.S.T acronym reminds us: facial drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulties and time.
As a former accountant who is also a heart patient, Al is like a compass. He is well-placed to give direction and offer guidance on just about all aspects from health to running a non-profit organizational growth, from health advice to fellow patients to organizational growth, legal matters, payroll, outreach, and more.
MHI has ramped up its marketing efforts on radio, TV, and online over the last two years, which has added to the growing reach of the organization. A rolling ad in Times Square, New York, attracted more than 2,500 new members in December 2021; 4.2 million patients reached out for education or information on becoming a volunteer or receiving support.
MHI is now operating in 20 countries with a goal of creating “years of future leaders” through the educational courses it offers in its The Mended Hearts Incorporated University programs. Offices in Europe, South America, and the Caribbean will become sister organizations to the one Al oversees in Georgia. Training in accounting, marketing, and the laws and privacy protocols relevant to a country are being rolled out.
As a retiree, volunteer, and director, Al is championing a cause he knows well. His next speaking engagement in Los Angeles is a likely precursor to many more abroad as he is on a relentless mission to connect as many hearts as possible.
The Mended Hearts, Inc. is a growing worldwide cardiovascular patient support network working to inspire hope and improve the quality of life of heart patients and their families. The non-profit organization is a resource for patients and families of all ages.