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On the mend


Jusith Collins

Judith Collins walks on the treadmill at the new
Peninsula Wellness Center.

Two years ago, Judith Collins seemed to be keeping pace with a bullet train: advancing projects as a library building consultant, looking after a daughter with multiple sclerosis, traveling, exercising, and embarking on outdoor adventures. Then, on a hiking trip in Yosemite Valley, the train went off the tracks.

After successfully completing a few short hikes, Collins and her husband headed out on a long trek, up and out of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. They had done it before. But this time, as they reached their destination and turned homeward, Collins began to feel her heart race. The searing chest pain that followed nearly brought her to her knees. Nevertheless, deciding she could make it back, she pressed onward, up the trail. And then she dropped.

In a lucky twist of fate, a doctor, a paramedic, a nurse, and a Boy Scout leader all happened to be hiking the trail. One gave her aspirin. Another began the three-hour hike down to the ranger’s station. The paramedic told her he was required by law to stay with her until she could receive medical attention.

“As I lay there, waiting for oxygen,” says Collins, “it felt like someone had grabbed hold of my heart and squeezed. The Boy Scout leader told my husband to take off my shoes and socks, dip the socks in the nearby creek, and drizzle water on me. As unappealing as it sounded, it helped.

“The ranger came with oxygen and said a helicopter had been dispatched. They didn’t have a GPS to guide the pilot to me, but my husband had one with him and directed the helicopter to land on a little granite shelf nearby.”

Collins was flown to a hospital in nearby Modesto, where a doctor did an angiogram to take a look at her heart. He identified a modest amount of plaque in her arteries, but nothing serious, and no blockages. Yet he did determine that her heart was bulging at the bottom, where it remained stagnant instead of rhythmically expanding and contracting.

“Have you been in a fight lately?” the doctor asked. “Did you meet a bear up there on the trail? Is there anything that is causing you considerable stress?”

Her heart trauma, he later told her, was called “broken heart syndrome.” Since her only experience with broken hearts related to romance, Collins said, “Oh, no, doctor; I’ve been happily married for 49 years.”

After the doctor explained that the syndrome usually relates to extreme sadness, stress, or shock — and not necessarily to the loss of a partner — Collins admitted that her job had been stressful, and that she was bearing the weight of her daughter’s illness through a recent series of hospitalizations. She had retired five months earlier and tried to shift her schedule to include more rest and relaxation.

The doctor prescribed medication and told her she should be back to normal within six months.

Collins, who turned 70 in August, also takes part in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, now at Community Hospital’s Peninsula Wellness Center in Marina. No stranger to exercise, she works out three days a week for an hour and a half, including walking on a treadmill, followed by a stint on an elliptical machine, and finishing with a series of strength-training exercises with arm weights. She recently added swimming and water exercise.

“Everybody on staff at the center is so good, so skilled, so nice,” says Collins.

Last summer, Collins implored her husband to return with her to the Hetch Hetchy trail that got the best of her, just to prove she could complete the trek. As they came around a bend in the trail, her husband said, “Look what’s ahead of us.” It really was a bear.


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