John Earl Day Jr. didn’t know what to think of Dhania Pena when they first met.

Pena, a community health worker with the Spectrum Health Healthier Communities Core Health program, had been assigned to work with Day to improve his health.

Could Day, 54, trust this person he’d never met? Could she help him save his life?

It turns out Pena would do exactly that—and more. She would become his friend.

“It just happened that she was the right person, at the right time,” Day said. “Anybody else, I would still be sick.”

Getting back on track

Day credits Pena with helping him get his life and health back on track.

His journey began in June 2018, when he’d been living with his sister.

One day he began to feel fatigued and short of breath. When he tried to shower and get ready for work, he found himself laboring.

“It was like I couldn’t breathe,” Day said.

His brother-in-law called 911 and they rushed him to the emergency department at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, where doctors determined he suffered heart failure.

Doctors drained 9 liters of fluid from his heart and lungs.

“The doctor said I was drowning—and that most people don’t wake up,” Day said. “I was really afraid. Nothing like that has ever happened to me. The doctor let me know how lucky I was to wake up.”

A social worker at the hospital referred Day, who also has diabetes, to the Core Health program.

For 10 years, Core Health has been helping people break through barriers to accessing health care.

The program is open to adults with diabetes, heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Participants can get involved through a referral, or by joining on their own. The program is entirely free to every participant—not even their insurance company pays.

Each participant is assigned a community health worker.

They meet once or twice a month to learn how to improve their health and quality of life. They create goals and learn how to access resources in the community, which can help them pin down services for housing, transportation, mental health services and low-cost food.

Building trust

The first order of business for Core Health’s community health workers: Earn the trust of clients.

This way, Pena said, the clients will be honest about what’s really holding them back.

“You have to work for that,” Pena said.

In time, Pena and Day developed that trust.

“It’s been a very beautiful transformation, just with him letting me in,” Pena said.

“We didn’t only talk about diabetes and heart failure,” she said. “We talked about goals and spirituality. I was just a person. I didn’t see him any different from me.”

Day opened up to her about the obstacles he faced.

He explained how he became homeless and began living in a shelter at Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids.

He didn’t have bus fare to get to the pharmacy, or money to pay for his medications.

A former cook at a local restaurant, he didn’t have a way to prepare the healthy meals he knew he needed.

Slowly, he worked with Pena to begin solving these problems.

He switched to a closer pharmacy he could reach through free bus rides. He began managing his medication schedule and attending doctor’s appointments.

Whenever Pena asked Day to schedule an appointment, he would do it.

He soon began to find places to cook healthy meals and track down housing leads.

“I was eating the same way I was eating for years,” Day said. “It’s a life change. You have to make substitutions.”

Day also used telehealth, a program that gives patients devices to monitor and record their weight, blood pressure and pulse every day.

Nurses call Day when his numbers are high, Pena said.

Building hope

Day is still homeless, but he’s far from hopeless. He has his health under control and his outlook on life is improving.

“I felt like I didn’t have a lot to live for,” Day said. “But (Pena) was saying otherwise. I have hope. It’s way better than it was.”

He has seen too many loved ones lose the battle to heart disease and diabetes.

His father died of a massive heart attack at age 55—just a year older than Day is now. Day also lost his wife and sister.

“I want to be around for a while,” Day said.

And Pena wants to help him achieve that.

“I wanted him to see his true potential,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t see it because we’re in the midst of all that’s happening in the moment. … I’m just grateful that he allowed me to be part of it.”

Day now continues his search for housing. He most looks forward to having a kitchen, where he can put his cooking skills to good use.

In the meantime, he’s thankful for how far he’s come.

“When I get up in the morning, I give thanks,” Day said. “I always give thanks because it could be worse.”

He’s hoping that by sharing his struggles, someone else will take the first step to finding the help they need.

“If this can help some other people who are walking the tight rope of being able to connect with someone in the medical field, it can turn out good,” he said.