A heart for teaching
The human heart has always fascinated Laura Newsome.
“So, I keep studying it,” she said, sitting behind her desk in Peters Hall, twirling her whale tail necklace between her fingers and thumb.
It was a thank-you gift from a patient she worked with, who had suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery soon before embarking on a cruise to Alaska.
“He really wanted to go on that cruise,” Newsome said. “So, our goal was to rehabilitate him so he was healthy and functioning and ready to go.”
That was more than a decade ago, before Newsome joined Radford University’s Health and Human Performance faculty. Before earning her Ph.D. and entering academia, the Ontario, Canada, native worked as a as a clinical cardiopulmonary therapist (CPT) in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
There, she cared for patients who had suffered heart attacks and undergone heart bypass surgery and had stent placements. She was in her 20s at the time, just having finished her master’s degree in exercise physiology at Wake Forest University. Many of her patients were in their 60s and 70s.
“I felt like I had 200 grandparents,” she said.
Much of her cardiac rehabilitation work with patients began soon after their surgeries, often the next day.
“First, we get them up and walking,” Newsome said, harkening back to her CPT days. “Then we write them a prescription of exercises they can handle.”
They work to build patients exercise tolerance.
If a patient had a sternotomy, “You’d be concerned that they can’t do pushups,” Newsome said. “We make sure they know how to monitor their heart rate and make sure they’re working in a safe zone so they don’t stress their heart.”
Once a patient is past three months of therapy, they may need more help from a CPT.
“They’re thinking, ‘I just had a heart attack; I could have died,’” Newsome said. “So, you take that seriously.”
If more time is needed, patients may go to a facility that offers long-term maintenance care, where they can engage in educational classes, adjust their diets and learn more exercises.
Newsome left her CPT career a few years ago and earned a Ph.D. in clinical exercise physiology at Virginia Tech. However, she didn’t leave behind her passion for the practice. Instead of working with patients, she now speaks of the importance exercise physiology plays in the lives of people with heart ailments.
“Every time I talk about heart disease in class, I get on my soapbox and I introduce my students to the profession,” said Newsome, who teaches exercise physiology and assessment and prescription courses at Radford.
Many of her students have an interest in occupational therapy and physical therapy, but Newsome explains to them the importance of exercise physiologists.
“Even though I’m no longer in the field, I now have the opportunity to train students who are looking at it as a potential career,” Newsome said. “If you show passion and you show love to a certain area of study, students are receptive to it.”
Once someone enters the profession, it is important, Newsome tells her students, to become involved in professional organizations, such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
She has been a member of, and is certified by, the organization since 2002. Newsome has presented at conferences and worked on numerous projects with the ACSM, including editing a chapter in the organization’s recent guideline book.
She also works with an affiliate organization, the Clinical Exercise Physiologist Association, or CEPA for short. The organization, with more than 50,000 members and certified professionals from 90 countries around the world, “sets the standards for all aspects of sports medicine, exercise testing and prescription writing.
All of Newsome’s work with her students and professional organizations goes back to her love for studying the human organ that keeps us all ticking.
In a few instances, heart issues have “hit a little closer to home,” she said, “now that my father has had a heart attack and stent placements and my stepmother has had a heart attack.”
Earlier this year, Newsome assisted CEPA in the creation of a brochure educating women on heart disease.
“I sent it to my stepmother,” she said. “She thought it was great to have that information, knowing it came from professionals who work with the heart and exercise.”
Caring for her father, who still lives in Toronto, has been “a little odd,” she admitted. “But he’s become more receptive to how all the medications and exercises are helping him physiologically.”
Whether she is practicing in the profession, teaching exercise physiology or simply studying and learning more about the human heart, “It is all very rewarding,” Newsome said, still twirling the whale tail necklace. “It’s fulfilling to know you’ve had a positive impact on people and that you’ve helped get them back to doing the things and living their lives.”