Erika H

Beating the odds

by Erika Slife Hostetler | Dec 03, 2019


You’ve probably heard her laugh. Or maybe you’ve noticed her shock of pink (or blue) hair that she sometimes has tucked in her blonde ponytail. With her tall and friendly presence, Elaine Tuennerman is hard to miss if you happen to be with her in one of her favorite group fitness classes, such as Yoga, or cycling or Power, Fight or Centergy.

IMG_0570The former punk rocker has a youthful sparkle that belies her 59 years.

“The gulf of my mental age and my physical age keeps getting wider and wider,” she says laughing.

But Elaine’s zest for life is not without purpose.

Roughly 7 years ago, Elaine weathered crushing chest pain that kept her from sleeping. At first, she assumed it was her life-long asthma flaring up. But after 6 days of no relief, she dragged herself to her doctor for a check-up.

“She puts the stethoscope to my chest, and she said, ‘Ok, you’re going to the hospital,” Elaine remembered. “She knew something was seriously wrong. So I walked over to the hospital, and they did the CAT scan. The radiologist called me back and said, ‘You’ve got to see this.’”

Elaine could not believe what she saw. Her lungs were covered in blood clots.

“It looked like someone had thrown dozens of marbles at them,” she said. “Every single branch had a blood clot.”

She was immediately hospitalized for pulmonary emboli showers. While she was stunned by the diagnosis, she also felt tremendously grateful for her doctor’s quick action.

“She really took it seriously, and, frankly, she saved my life,” she said.

After a couple of days, she checked out of the hospital with a bag full of blood thinners, which would be injected directly into her stomach for the next two weeks. She moved to a daily pill for the next 18 months. But the grisly side effects from the medication did not diminish.

For the former punk band leader and world traveler, the medication “was just ruining my life,” she says without irony. “Because I had this pain, I was taking drug after drug to address the pain.”

Her medical team kept her on the blood thinners for a year and a half, six months longer than the typical patient, Elaine says, because her pulmonary emboli were unexplained.

“There was no evidence of clot in the legs. I hadn’t been on a plane,” she said.

She was relieved when she was cleared to stop taking the medication. But her respite was short-lived.

“Within a few months, I was at the beach walking, and I got a sharp pain in my calf, and I got short of breath,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, this is what they said I should be paying attention to. So I went to the hospital, and sure enough, I had another pulmonary emboli shower.”

Her doctors put her back on blood thinners. Fortunately, for Elaine, the side effects of her new medication were less severe. 

“The downside is that they still don’t have an answer for (the blood clots) or in antidote to the blood thinner,” she said. It’s made her approach life in a more cautious way.

“I’ve always been a crazy woman. I’ve done a lot of dangerous things in my life,” she says laughing. “My parents died very young, so I’ve always had the idea of here today, gone tomorrow. I just accept that death exists. I used to wear always a bracelet with death on it, not because I am morbid, but because I wanted a reminder to live in the moment. But when you’re on (blood thinners), you have to live a little more careful.”

In 2015, she joined Galter LifeCenter. At first she would come to exercise on her own. But she was frustrated with her progress.

“I was coming and working out but I wasn’t getting anywhere,” she said. She was using the treadmill, pool and weight room, but did not feel any improvement. “I wasn’t getting anywhere with my lungs.”

One day, with her husband out of town, she decided to try a group fitness class.

 “I took Shannon’s Stretch and Tone. It was the camaraderie, it was the fun, it was the feeling that I could do it,” she said.

And her world opened up.

“I went to that class for about a year,” she said. “I would get really faint. I also have really low blood pressure. I would feel like I was going to pass out. (But Shannon) was so sweet, she would modify. She would say, ‘Elaine, you do this.’ That was so fabulous that she would modify for me! So, because it was Shannon, I would stay for spin (Group Ride) class. The pulmonary training of the interval training just fixed me! I’m not going to get rid of this scarring on my lungs but gaining the heart health took some load off my lungs!”

Her cardiologist was astonished by Elaine’s recovery. Her heart rate improved so much, that “he fired me,” Elaine said. “He wanted to send me to the lobby to tell all the heart patients what I did. It was the spinning!”

Her success with cycling motivated her to try new challenges.

“It opened the door for me to do things that I would never do before,” she said. “I’m a huge advocate of spinning. I’m always trying to get people to try it. I do believe that we need speed. When I was a kid, I was the ever-ready rabbit. My solution to everything in life was to just keep chugging. (I was a) long-distance runner and swimmer. I didn’t sleep. I was always like, just keep going. I was a ballet dancer. I played in every sport at my school. I was just muscle. Extremely strong…But the kind of fitness I felt from spinning was in just a whole different league. Even though I’m decades older, everything was just so much easier!”

Today, she works out about 6 days a week. She credits her amazing progress to consistency, and to her “gym buddies” she’s met in group fitness classes. Last February, she participated in Galter’s Ironman Challenge.
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She got so caught up in the excitement, and with the encouragement of staff members, she swam, biked and ran enough miles to complete a little more than two Ironman races in three weeks. (See workout log on the right!)

“That’s when I knew I could do anything,” she said.

She hopes that people learn from her story to pay attention to their bodies. She wants people to listen to the messages their bodies are sending them.

“It’s very upsetting to me that we don’t get educated about blood clots. Over the years, I would be getting these chest pains and I would think it was just my asthma,” she said. “I didn’t go to a doctor. I didn’t know, and I don’t think people do know…It’s scary because (we are all) a ticking time bomb. But for me, I view it as a gift, because we’re all ticking time bombs. All we can do is live as healthy as we can and listen to our bodies.”

ehostetler@SwedishCovenant.org

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