By Steven Clark
The new SBH Health and Wellness Center is already having a huge impact on the lives of dozens of people throughout the Bronx. Here are three of them.
A friend she had not seen in some time took one look at the sparkle in Yvonne Robles’ eyes and said, “I notice something different about you. You must be in love.”
Robles, who has worked at St. Barnabas Hospital for 30 years, unleashed that mirthful laugh her friends and colleagues know so well. “I’m in love with myself,” she answered.
Robles is one of 125 Bronx residents who are beneficiaries of a grant that has provided free personalized exercise classes at the Healthplex Fitness Center and cooking classes at the SBH Center for Culinary Medicine/Teaching Kitchen. Both are located at the new SBH Health and Wellness Center, across the street from St. Barnabas Hospital. The new facility also includes a rooftop farm for growing fresh produce and a food pantry for those residents suffering from food insecurity, in addition to an urgent care center and various clinical offices.
The goal of the grant is an ambitious one: to begin to transform the health of the last healthy county in New York State. Early signs are very positive.
According to Daniel Bonilla, director of clinical integration at the fitness center, patients in the program lost between five and 31 percent of their body weight following eight initial sessions in the fitness center and the teaching kitchen. Weight loss, in fact, ranges from 10 to 89 pounds (the greatest being among those patients who have also undergone bariatric surgery). Upon completion of these sessions, all recipients of the program receive six-month free memberships to the gym and teaching kitchen.
Evidence shows, however, that it is not just about the numbers. “We believe that because the participants are living healthier, and are reducing their stress through the gym, they are starting to see changes like thicker hair and stronger nails, and an increase in energy and self-esteem,” says Bonilla. “They are very happy with these findings and attribute it to eating cleaner, exercising that allows them to sweat out toxins and, in general, living a healthier lifestyle.”
The program exposes residents in the community to regular exercise and teaches them how to prepare foods in a healthier manner. Until now, many have followed a lifestyle that includes little if any exercise and a reliance on fast food and/or meals laced with sugar, salt and empty calories. This inevitably has resulted in the community’s high incidence of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“People in this community live in a food desert and it’s hard for them to access fresh produce on a regular basis,” says Emily Schlag, director of the teaching kitchen. “That’s a really big issue for a lot of people. Also, many haven’t received a lot of nutrition education and are really confused about what’s best for them because they hear information from many different sources.”
The benefits medical experts are seeing are not limited to the physical. Leila Hekmati, a behavioral health clinician at SBH, writes in a recent letter, “I have referred patients living with a variety of mood and affective disorders including depression, anxiety, PTSD and other trauma-related disorders as part of a Behavior Activation treatment plan, and have observed marked improvement in mood as demonstrated by pre- and post-screening scores and self-reports. The patients not only improve their physical fitness, but also improve their self-esteem receiving personalized training in a shiny, new facility, build self-regulation skills and release traumatic stress, disrupt the social isolation of sheltering in place, and improve relationships with greater emotional attunement when enrolling with partners and family members. They say the ‘issues are in the issues’ and this program couldn’t be more evident of that.”
There are many stories of participants in the program whose lives have been dramatically improved over just several months. There is the young man who eventually qualified for entry into a city police academy after months of diet and exercise allowed him to lower his A1C score. A mother who was suffering from depression began to feel better about herself and was able to come off her antidepressants.
Here are profiles of three of these stories.
“I make everyone laugh, but it was getting hard to make me happy,” says the 61-year-old director of volunteer services at SBH Health System. “I made others feel good, but I would sit down and say, ‘I don’t feel pretty. I feel sluggish, heavy.’ I felt like the emoji turd.”
She weighed 235 pounds, the heaviest she’s ever been. When she visited Dr. Guido Macchiavello in December at the SBH ambulatory clinic for her annual checkup, her primary care physician could read the concern on her face. “As soon as Dr. Mac saw me, he asked, ‘Are you okay?’ He then told me about a new program that was starting at the Health and Wellness Center and asked if I would be interested.”
She answered without hesitation, even though the last time she had worked out was nearly two decades earlier. This was before she suffered a series of maladies that most seriously included breast cancer and led to a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery that for years caused painful and recurrent spasms in her rib cage area. She also suffered from two bad shoulders (one frozen, the other needing rotator cuff surgery) and hypothyroidism, which can cause such symptoms as obesity, joint pain and heart disease.
“I was eating everything and anything,” she admits. “I had a romance with Cadbury chocolate bars. I had to begin to hold myself accountable in not only pounds and inches, but appearance.”
After meeting with Albert Jovel, the general manager at the Healthplex Fitness Center, a national organization which partners with hospitals like SBH in the operation of medical fitness gyms, she enrolled in the program. Struggling though the early workouts, she soon turned the corner, coming to enjoy the feeling that comes with tired and sore muscles. She knew this meant the workouts were starting to have an effect. By February, she was a fixture at the gym, working out four days a week.
“Albert showed me how to breath, focus and move, and he encouraged me and built up my confidence,” she says. “I leave work at 5 pm and only have to walk across the street. I take spin classes on Mondays and Wednesdays; cardio on my own Thursdays on the treadmill, bicycle or elliptical; and personal training with Albert on Fridays.”
Remembered by old friends as a “hot blonde,” the woman whose ailments had forced her to sit on the sidelines for years has, without question, been making a comeback. This was amplified in April, when she started working with Chef Emily in the teaching kitchen, where she now takes classes every Tuesday. She’s made changes in little things, like her morning coffee – taking one sugar, instead of three – and eliminating from her diet long-time favorites like white rice, bread, hamburgers with lots of cheese, and French fries. She began cooking with an air fryer, and broiling and baking foods instead of frying them. She replaced frozen vegetables in her diet with fresh ones, and bought a juicer. She learned how to prepare healthy foods like a classic chicken salad and honey spiced nuts, and to substitute certain ingredients for others – like yogurt for mayonnaise – and the benefits of good fats like chick peas and avocados.
As of now, Yvonne has lost 25 pounds. She says she can hardly keep her clothes from falling off.
“I feel I really communicate with Albert. He explains why this works better and I feel comfortable to respond,” she says about her workouts. “The way he speaks to me I don’t feel like a failure any more. I practice certain exercises at home so I can get to the level that I feel comfortable with. I put on music and jump around doing twisting and squats. I’m transforming myself. “If I have a bad day at work, I go there and everything changes. I love it. My life has become like that Michael Buble song, ‘Feeling Good.’”
Jihad Taliafero was 12 years old and playing basketball in a park near his Bronx home when a stray bullet struck him in the back.
“It was on the hottest of days and I was supposed to be with my debate team but it was cancelled and I went to the park with friends. That’s when someone started shooting,” Jihad, now 21, remembers.
He spent a month in the hospital and had his gallbladder removed.
“The bullet is still lodged in my body,” he says. “I couldn’t play sports because the bullet could have moved and that led to anxiety and PTSD. All I wanted to do was stay in the house. I ate more and played video games.”
An honor student involved in various out-of-class activities, his physical and mental health fell off a cliff over the next few years. Living in what he describes as an abusive family, he and his siblings spent the next few years shuttling through the foster care system. They lived in as many as a dozen different homeless shelters.
Although he readily admits, “I experienced a lot of things,” he managed to graduate from East Bronx Academy in 2017. He now attends Hostos Community College with plans to transfer to a four-year school and study psychology. He wants to become a therapist.
Yet, until several months ago – Jihad’s academic success and obvious intelligence notwithstanding – his problems with anxiety left him unable to leave the house. He refused to go anywhere by bus or subway because of fear of being seen in public. His therapist encouraged him to look into enrolling in the free program, hoping that this would help with his anxiety, sleeping problems, obesity issues (he weighed nearly 300 pounds) and high blood pressure.
“She gave me Albert’s phone number. I kept stalling,” he says. “I finally left a message and he called me back and said a personal trainer would contact me. The first time I came here was on a Saturday and the security guard told me the gym was closed. I was just proud of myself that I woke up and came.”
Having never done a push-up or sit-up before and fighting the instinct to retreat to his home, he convinced himself to return the next week.
“The first day I was super winded, but soon we started to pick it up a little. I was so tired, but I told myself ‘you keep going and you’ll build up.’ Strangely, I started to like the feeling of being tired. It got me to want to work out more and having a personal trainer (which is provided to all grant recipients during the initial sessions) has helped me tremendously.”
He soon felt comfortable taking the bus, three times a week, from his home to the center, a breakthrough in itself. “It’s gotten me out of the house, where you can build up your anxieties, and given me the motivation to do things. I’m taking driving lessons now. It’s opened up a lot of new doors.” He is proud that Jovel only has to write out his workout plans for the day and he can do the rest on his own. He is also proud that he has lost about 20 pounds and has, in contrast to his recent history, persevered. “I push myself and my goal is to knock out the workouts so they see that I’m consistent and dedicated,” he says. “I went from a person that never worked out a day in my life to constantly going three days a week while juggling other things.”
He is also eating healthier on a budget, learning about the benefit of various herbs and spices.
“Procrastination was my biggest problem,” he says. “Getting out of bed was the hardest part. This showed me that I could do a lot more.”
He was talking about his workouts, but he might as well have been referring to his life.
His wife was understandably stunned and speechless when she looked up recently and saw Alrick Collins standing on the roof of their Bronx home, fixing the tiles.
Which goes to show just how far Alrick has come.
It was a day, a Friday, nearly four years ago, that changed his life. Alrick can recite it line and verse. It was August 10, 2017, and the soft-spoken Jamaican-born carpenter and handyman had spent much of the morning helping a friend with repairs at his house in Brooklyn. Returning home around 1 pm, he quickly turned around to drive to White Plains to pick up his wife. No more than 10 minutes after arriving home – it’s a miracle, he stresses, that it didn’t happen while he was driving when he could have been killed or killed others – he remembers starting to feel “weird.” His eyesight became blurry. He soon found himself on the bathroom floor, screaming his wife’s name before losing his ability to speak.
“I never lost consciousness,” he says. “I could hear and see everything that was going on.”
An ambulance rushed him to St. Barnabas Hospital. His blood pressure was so high that doctors would not give him tPA. The stroke kept him in the hospital for a month. He could not lift his leg, speak, or focus his vision.
Over the next three years in inpatient and then outpatient rehab centers, Alrick went through the painful process of relearning many of the skills he had once taken for granted. Last fall, as the Healthplex Fitness Center was preparing to open, Daniel Bonilla paid a visit to the SBH ambulatory care clinic in search of patients who might benefit from the program. He spoke with Alrick’s PT, convincing her that the 54-year-old might be ready for a new adventure.
“She thought I would be a good fit,” Alrick says. I figured, ‘how could it hurt?’ Repetitive exercise brings back muscle memory.” He had made strides since his stroke, but he was still paralyzed on his right side and largely dependent on a cane to get around. During that first day at the fitness center, he recalls Albert Jovel telling him things he had never heard before and which he hasn’t forgotten since.
“Albert taught me so much that day,” he says. “So many things I didn’t know. For example, if you put your hands in front of you it will make it easier to get up and if you keep focusing your eyes on your arm it will allow you to sit down with a softer motion. If you smile, even when you wear a mask, the workout will be easier. I tried each and every one.”
Working in the fitness center under the direction of his personal trainer, Lexis Beato, Alrick started off slowly, doing simple exercises to strengthen his body and improve his range of motion. He learned workouts he could do at home.
Today, Alrick’s speech is normal and you hardly notice the weakened right hand. He still walks with a cane, but he has a bounce to his step. He coordinates his physical and osteopathic manipulative therapy with workouts at the fitness center for two hours every Tuesday and Wednesday. In addition to his rigorous workouts with weights, he just started using the treadmill. Now, he proudly says, he’s up to 20 minutes, walking briskly, on an incline. On Wednesdays after his workout, he takes a cooking class at the teaching kitchen, standing for another hour and a half, “which is therapy in itself,” he adds.
Recently, one of his physical therapists happened to be exercising at the center when, glancing from the corner of her eye, she noticed a familiar figure running through his exercise regimen. It was a classic double take moment. “She couldn’t believe that she saw me here,” says Alrick, “and she couldn’t believe what she saw me doing.”
“He does a full body workout now,” says Beato. “The other day he left drenched in sweat after weight training and using the bicycle, the rowing machine, the treadmill. He has far more range of motion on his weaker side and he is definitely getting stronger. I knew he would do well because of his attitude.”
Beato has Alrick doing planks, an isometric core strength exercise that involves maintaining a position similar to a push-up for the longest possible time. It will strengthen muscles that can help him get to his feet should he fall. The sky, Jovel adds, is the limit when it comes to Alrick’s future. “You can’t put a cap on how much better he’ll get over the next few years.”
Alrick is pleased with his progress. “I see the physical changes and feel the physiological changes. I can feel my hands tingling, which is a sign that the muscles are firing. “What most people don’t see is that I’m coming from a point where I couldn’t lift my right leg or arm, to now walking around and using workout equipment without assistance. The difference is monumental.”