Back in April we extended an invitation for women to apply to be a part of the Parkview Heart Institute’s inaugural Her Heart Challenge program. We didn’t specify which risk factors would move a candidate to the top of the list, or what, specifically, participants could expect if accepted. We encouraged applicants to have faith in the program, just as we would have faith in their commitment to advance their well-being.
This challenge represents Parkview’s investment in education for the communities we serve. “As we‘ve talked with ladies in the community at WomenHeart support meetings and our Love Your Heart event, and certainly in the clinical setting, we recognized an opportunity to connect women to resources, so they have evidence-based, practical tools to help decrease their risk of heart disease,” Leah Felger MSN, RN, program coordinator, Parkview Heart Institute, said. “We felt that if we could connect in this way with women they would in turn share that knowledge with family and friends as well.”
The overall goal of the Her Heart Challenge is clear and simple: To help women decrease their own personal risk of heart disease. “I got involved because of the potential to impact women’s health in our community,” Jill Zahm, RN, MSN, nurse navigator, Parkview Center for Healthy Living, said. “Having healthy women is crucial to a healthy community since they make the majority of health-related decisions for their spouses, children and aging parents. If women are not educated in healthy behaviors and model these behaviors, our community as a whole suffers.”
But when it came time to review the applications, it wasn’t quite so simple. “We spent about 4 weeks discussing what we were looking for and developing specific criteria based on behavioral interview questions,” Leah said. “Each question had a weight-based score. We were looking for women that were able to commit to the dates required, were motivated to make some changes, would be comfortable and able to contribute in a group setting, and women who wouldn’t give up. We agonized over the decisions.”
Resiliency and determination carried a lot of weight for Jill as well. “I was looking for participants who needed and wanted to make change. I considered just how much they needed us and where I saw their readiness level,” she said.
In the end, 25 brave women were selected to participate. They range in age, health and race. No two of them look the same, or have the same story, but they share the single most important thing: A desire to turn their heart health around.
In July, the participants reported for their initial screenings. They received their weight, cholesterol, blood glucose, blood pressure and body mass index. These numbers would eventually serve as the starting numbers against which success and personal improvement (as it pertains to their physical health) will be measured for them.
Early August brought the official beginning of the Her Heart Challenge – a Basic Training weekend at YMCA Camp Potawotami in Wolcottville, Ind. One by one – each radiating an eager (yet tentative) energy – the ladies filed into the mess hall. They met and mingled and chatted about their families, their work and their homes, as they swayed in rocking chairs on the porch overlooking the lake. The bonds began before the Her Heart committee ever intervened. They were organic and unprompted and an underestimated foundation for the road ahead.
After a leisurely meal and welcome from the Her Heart team, the women headed down the road to their dorm/classroom for official introductions. We worked our way around the room, each person sharing why they pursued the Her Heart Challenge and what they hoped to get out of the program. The themes of their testimonials were like a thread, pulling all of the attendees’ commonalities together into a stronger, more sobering story, prompting one participant to offer, “We’re all more alike than we are different.” The buzz of the overhead lights filled the emotional silences, as one after another, they stood and disclosed the struggles so many women experience but seldom vocalize …
I want support and resources and a different future.
I stopped taking care of myself because I had to take care of everybody else.
Life takes you by surprise.
Their needs overshadowed the need to take care of myself.
I put myself on the backburner.
It’s dawning on me now how close to death I really am. I want to live.
I’m at a crossroads. I have to get my head right.
I lost my mother.
I lost my partner.
I lost my brother.
I don’t want to go “there” so I am here.
I want to stop hating myself.
I’ve spent my entire life taking care of others. It’s time to be selfish.
I don’t know how to fix myself.
I will not let sugar kill me.
I look in the mirror and I hate what I see.
I eat to comfort myself. That comfort is killing me.
After every woman had offered her candid motivation and intention, and Jill gently reminded them all that, “Self care is never selfish”, it was time for a bonfire and bed. After all, sunrise the next day would bring more training, and things were about to get physical.
A little lighter after shedding some of their personal emotional burdens the night before, the group filed onto the beach and circled up for an invigorating stretch and HIIT circuit in the Saturday morning sun. The crew then fueled up in time to take to the water for canoeing and kayaking which, along with a rejuvenating dose of fresh air and core strengthening, delivered a healthy dose of laughter for the new friends.
Basic Training concluded in the classroom, where the women received educational materials and notes on their screening numbers and what they truly mean. They also focused on setting SMART goals (Specific. Measureable. Achievable. Reasonable. Timeframe). Each woman spent time exploring what she truly wanted to get out of this journey, and what she would have to do to get there.
“The kickoff weekend was a humbling experience,” Leah said. “I was overwhelmed to watch them together, laughing and enjoying themselves. It just felt like we were going to be starting something really big and they were completely up for it.” The hugs and well wishes that filled the dorm walls that Saturday signified just temporary farewells, as they triggered the start of weekly 1-hour meetings for the Her Heart Challenge participants.
Over the next several months, the ladies will gather to get resources on exercise, nutrition, cholesterol, hypertension and sleep, weight loss, and mindfulness, among other topics. The intent for this approach is that these women will not only learn how to change their own lives, but also empower those they love to do the same.
“At Basic Training, right before everyone left, one of the gals said, ‘I just woke up renewed this morning, like something had shifted in me and I'm just ready to do this!’" Leah shared. “I hope that all of these women achieve their goals, make lifelong friends, and share what they’ve learned with others.”