CANTON, Ga. (FOX 5 Atlanta) - Things unraveled quickly for Sam Pittard in the summer of 2016. The 76-year old retired Canton, Georgia, IT manager had been diagnosed decades earlier with a heart murmur.
After suddenly growing fatigued, Pittard went to see his cardiologist. He ended up in a catheterization lab, then an operating room, undergoing open heart surgery to replace his faulty aortic valve. Pittard, who had always been athletic and healthy, emerged shaken.
"I'll be honest, I was concerned," Pittard says. "I was afraid. How far can I push this? What can I do?"
It took time, but Pittard found Northside Hospital Cherokee's cardiac rehabilitation program.
Cardiologist Dr. Apurva Shah says it's natural to feel nervous after a serious heart scare.
"It's super common with cardiac patients, especially after the surgery," Dr. Shah says. "There is that feeling of anxiety, or not knowing if they're going to be the same person after the surgery that they were before the surgery."
Sam Pittard felt a kinship with the patients around him in the program.
"You see everybody trying," Pittard says. 'When you know you have skilled supervision, it makes you feel a lot better about pushing yourself."
Cardiac rehab was a game changer. But Pittard still had questions about his medication, what he should be eating, and how to get active again. That's when he found Mended Hearts of Cherokee, a support program for heart patients and their caregivers.
"I saw Mended Hearts as an opportunity for me to talk to other people and grasp knowledge any way I can," he remembers. "I'm not saying I'm brilliant, or anything. But, when it's your heart, and you're scared, you want to know everything you can know."
The program brought in a series of speakers and heart experts to answer the members' questions.
"We've heard from nutrition experts, doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, you name it," Pittard says.
Mended Hearts also allowed him to find a way to help heart patients. Pittard has been trained to visit newly-diagnosed patients, as a peer-to-peer counselor.
"I know they're scared, I know they're worried," he says. "We just listen. All we do is let them talk."
Dr. Shah says having the patient's counsel other patients is a natural fit.
"They've been through it," he says. "They know what works and what doesn't work."
Mended Hearts Cherokee chapter president David Devine, who survived his own heart scare, says that "been-there, lived-through-it" experience is critical.
"It's really good for a patient to have a peer-to-peer conversation, Devine says. "We're able to answer questions. We don't give specific answers but in generalities. So they know that there is a quality of life after your heart procedure."
Two years after his heart scare, Pittard says he's fully recovered.
"I feel pretty good."
Sam Pittard says helping others -- has helped his own heart mend.
There are 10 Mended Hearts chapters in Georgia. To find one in your area, visit