Susan C Cheering on Cardiac Patients

“I said, 'You’re very fortunate to be here and have such a wonderfully supportive family. You’ll get through this.'"

Volunteers in the Caring Hearts Program Provide Reassurance to People Who are Having Surgery

Not long ago, a mother of two was about to have heart surgery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJH).

“She was scared to death,” recalls former patient Susan Capolongo of Montgomery Township. “I said, you’re very fortunate to be here and have such a wonderfully supportive family. You’ll get through this. Today is Sunday. By Thursday, you’re going to be sitting up in a chair saying, Wow, it’s over.”

Susan is one of ten volunteers who provide support to patients scheduled for heart surgery. She’s also an Outreach Worker in RWJUH’s Community Health Education Department for The Harry Stark Caring Hearts Cardiac Visitation Program. The program was started by Harry Stark, a patient who wanted to help lessen people’s fears of heart surgery.

“The surgical and clinical teams care for the physical needs of patients, and our program helps to lessen the emotional stress of surgery,” says Kathleen Johnson, who facilitates the Caring Hearts program. “Patients relate best to peers who also have experienced cardiac surgery.”

The Caring Hearts program is supported by Leonard Y. Lee, MD, ACS, ACC, CCP, James W. Mackenzie MD Professor and Chair, Department of Surgery, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and his surgical team.

Volunteers are trained by senior members of the program. They visit patients monthly — typically twice in one week — with a pre- and a post-surgery visit.

“The visits appear to reduce the stress and anxiety surrounding the surgery,” says Johnson.

An Inspiring Journey

Twice a month, Susan sees cardiac patients who request a visit from a peer and shares her own story. In 2017, the 53-year-old runner, cyclist and mother of three needed a new aortic valve, which enables blood to leave the heart. She had such a good experience at RWJUH and at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, another RWJBarnabas Health hospital, where she had been treated for Hodgkin lymphoma years earlier — that she wanted to become a volunteer.

“My life was saved twice at these hospitals,” she says.

Susan finds talking with other patients rewarding. In addition to in-person visits, she counsels some patients over the phone. She recently spoke with a woman for almost an hour.

“She had questions and concerns I was able to answer,” recalls Susan.

The mother of two who had been worried about her heart surgery did well. When Susan returned for a post-op visit, the patient was sitting up and smiling.

“You’re my hero,” she told Susan.

“I’m just a cheerleader,” Susan said. “You’re the hero.”

Looking for Volunteers

Have you had heart surgery? If so, the Caring Hearts program needs you!

We’re looking for volunteers who are available to visit cardiac patients at least twice a month.

Please call Community Health Education to learn more: (732) 846-0131 or

Your heart doesn’t beat just for you. Get it checked. Click here to reach a Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital cardiac specialist or call (888) 724-7123.