Jeanne VandenBerg wants to beat the odds.
In June, the 64-year-old woke in the middle of the night with incredible heartburn and shortness of breath.
Her husband, Jim, drove her to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, where doctors quickly reached a diagnosis. She had suffered a heart attack.
VandenBerg returned home with two heart stents and a fistful of medications to keep her healthy.
Then she learned the facts.
One in five patients will have a repeat heart attack within five years.
“It stopped me dead in my tracks,” she said. “That can’t be right. What am I going to do to not be a statistic?”
‘I felt ridiculous’
The next step in her recovery: cardiac rehabilitation, a medically supervised program that pairs exercise with education.
She hesitated to schedule her orientation.
Her sedentary lifestyle, previous lung issues and sciatic pain made the word “gym” seem intimidating.
“I was throwing excuses left and right,” VandenBerg said.
She eventually relented. On arrival for her orientation session at the Spectrum Health Cardiac Rehabilitation facility on Bradford Street in Grand Rapids, the staff had a wheelchair waiting and her daughter, Amy, delivered her to the building.
Once inside, she saw the specialized equipment and treadmills, including other patients who appeared to be running “50 miles an hour.”
Her initial reaction? “There’s no way on God’s green earth you’re going to get me on a treadmill,” she said.
She first underwent an evaluation on an InBody machine, an elaborate scale that evaluates body composition.
The staff use it at the beginning and end of the 12-week cardiac rehab program to measure changes in weight, body fat and lean muscle mass.
The verdict? She needed to reach a healthier weight and improve her fitness.
“Things I already knew,” VandenBerg said.
The cardiac rehabilitation team designed an exercise program around her abilities.
“I felt ridiculous because I was measuring myself against the others in the room,” she said.
VandenBerg isn’t the type to give up.
She’s been working since age 15 and she still goes to work every day. She feels guilty when she’s not working.
She aimed that same drive and determination into her recovery.
“Every single time she comes in, she has specific goals she wants to achieve,” Spectrum Health exercise physiologist Jesika Sprague, ASCM-CEP, said. “She is incredibly determined.”
On her second visit, VandenBerg walked into the building slowly.
By the third visit, she decided to pick up the pace.
While the exercise was making her physically stronger, VandenBerg soon realized stress held her back.
Every twinge felt like another potential heart attack.
“The anxiety overpowers your thought process,” she said.
With guidance from a behavioral health specialist, she learned to stop comparing herself to others and to give herself credit for making progress. She learned to use relaxation techniques to calm anxious thoughts.
She also realized her old eating habits were sabotaging her progress.
With help from Spectrum Health nutritionist Holly Dykstra, MA, RDN, VandenBerg adopted a modified version of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.
“I tell her all the time that she is the poster child for cardiac rehabilitation,” Sprague said. “Not just physically, but emotionally, too. She has changed 1,000%.”
Today, VandenBerg exercises three times a week in the gym.
“I can’t say enough good about it,” she said. “I was dreading it and feeling like an idiot. Now I look forward to it on the days I go.”
Putting in the work
After completing 36 sessions of cardiac rehab, VandenBerg moved on to the Spectrum Health Metabolic Wellness Program to continue getting stronger.
“Her story is quite inspiring,” said Spectrum Health preventive cardiologist Thomas Boyden, MD, director of Spectrum Health Cardiac Rehabilitation.
“We are providing the tools, but we can’t do the work for the individual. She’s done all the work and she has made remarkable progress,” Dr. Boyden said. “Going from a wheelchair to being able to exercise three times a week is pretty remarkable and a testament to the work she put into it.”
VandenBerg, who now can walk 25 minutes on the treadmill, is determined to stay healthy for her husband, her daughters and her new baby granddaughter.
“I’m not done here on earth,” she said. “There’s a plan for me. God’s not done with me yet.”
She is moving in the right direction.
“Little things can have an enormous impact,” Dr. Boyden said. “The heart always responds well to exercise, healthy eating and managing stress.
“The heart is just kind of waiting for you to do the right things and it will respond unbelievably.”