A standing ovation greeted the last-place finisher of a Steamboat Springs 5-kilometer walk in June.
Martha “Sam” Van Horn, clad in a Yampa Valley Medical Center pulmonary rehab T-shirt and pushing a cart-full of oxygen canisters, was pumping her fist in pride as she completed the course.
“I was the last one in, but I did it,” Van Horn said. “I was not in it to win it. I just wanted to finish.”
At age 67, life is good and getting better for Van Horn. The Hayden resident is losing weight and gaining strength and confidence. Although she depends on an oxygen supply day and night, she no longer feels confined by her medical condition.
She has come a long way from the dreadful day eight years ago when she was hospitalized with a blood oxygen level of 56 percent. Anything below 92 percent is defined as “oxygen-starved,” and levels below 77 percent are considered critical.
Van Horn, who had a history of bronchial pneumonia, was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD. She began using oxygen, delivered through a nasal cannula and plastic tubing.
Like many people living with COPD, Van Horn found that her world began shrinking. She often felt “stuck at home.” Within six months, the simple act of walking across her living room became unbearable because of abdominal pain and shortness of breath.
The turning point came 18 months ago when she sought help from Yampa Valley Medical Center’s pulmonary rehab program.
“This has been an absolute lifesaver for me,” she said. “It has turned my life around.”
YVMC respiratory therapist and pulmonary rehab coordinator Alan Ramirez describes the program as educational and tailored to each participant.
“Everyone is different and has individual goals and needs,” Ramirez said. “We may use the same equipment, but we work on specific things to improve strength and boost confidence.
“In Sam’s case, we are maximizing weight loss with aerobics and resistance training,” he said. “We are giving her all these tools so she can be more social and do more things.”
“Alan hounded me in a very caring way, telling me I needed to lose weight,” Van Horn said. “In February, I joined Weight Watchers and have since dropped 42 pounds.”
Van Horn set her sights on entering the 5K walk in June and asked Ramirez if he thought she could do it. He said yes, and she devoted several Saturdays to train under his guidance.
When other Weight Watchers members heard about Van Horn’s plan, they signed up for the walk, too.
“They told me, ‘If you can do it on oxygen, we can do it,’” Van Horn said.
In preparation for the big day, Van Horn borrowed a small cart from Ace at the Curve. In it she placed a partitioned box with six compact oxygen canisters. She pushed the cart for more than three miles, stopping several times to switch canisters.
Crossing the finish line to applause was the final step of that walk but just one of many strides in Van Horn’s journey.
“I come to pulmonary rehab three times a week for two or three hours each session,” she said. “I lift weights and use the treadmill, bicycle and other machines for my legs, chest and arms.”
Van Horn also works full-time at Native Excavating, travels and takes care of her house and yard. Last week, as she rearranged furniture, she realized she was “moving around like a regular person, living at 6,000 feet and functioning like everyone else.”
“This program has improved my quality of life 1,000 percent,” she said. “I can get out and do things. Last fall, I drove to Laughlin, Nev., to spend time with family. I even toured Hoover Dam, going all the way to the bottom.”
She plans to lose 90 more pounds and has no desire to slow down this winter. Instead, with Ramirez’s help, she hopes to take up a new sport — snowshoeing.
Christine McKelvie is the public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at email@example.com.