It was 5am on Dec. 22, 1986, and Ron Pasquinelli was sound asleep. That’s when it hit. “I woke up, and it felt like someone put my shoulders into a vice and squeezed,” he recalls. “It felt like an elephant. I poked my wife and told her, ‘I hurt.’ It really hurt.”

Pasquinelli was having a heart attack.

Just under two weeks later, he was released from Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula (CHOMP), and Pasquinelli knew life would have to change.

“I had a family history of heart disease. I was overweight. I didn’t watch what I ate except every mouthful as it went in,” he says. “And still, they somehow managed to keep me alive.”

Just three years earlier, in January of 1984, a nurse at CHOMP by the name of Terry Thomas had turned an idea of a healthy heart center into what is now the Cardiopulmonary Wellness Program. Thomas immediately recruited fellow nurse Martha Kennifer and between the two of them back in those days, they managed four heart patients through a process of rebirth, from diet and exercise to education.

“It was our desire to serve the ongoing needs of patients who had heart attacks, bypass, heart disease or those at high risk of any of those things. We thought we could help them reduce the risk of having another heart problem, or a heart problem at all for those at risk” Kennifer says.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, the program boasts nearly 400 patients and is staffed by nurses, educators, dieticians, and counselors. “It’s about everything from smoking cessation to stress reduction to exercise, a lecture series, you name it. It’s heart smart living,” Kennifer says. “And unless you’re fairly aggressive about modifying your risk factors, heart disease is a progressive thing, and it isn’t going to get better on its own.”

Pasquinelli faced that reality soon after his heart attack 17 years ago and has been part of a three-day-a-week regimen at the center ever since. He feels more physically fit now, at 67, than he did at 50 or any of the rest of his adult years.

“I’m about 30 pounds lighter,” he says, “I’ve got more muscle, and I’m in better shape in terms of physical conditioning. I walk further. I hated exercise. But now? I look forward to it.”

There’s a lot within the program to look forward to. “We’ve got aerobics, strength training, bicycles, treadmills, weights, and mind/body sessions like nutrition counseling and relaxation techniques,” Kennifer says.

For Pasquinelli, the routine is no-nonsense. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you’ll find him in the program’s gym on a stationary bike for twenty minutes, then another twenty minutes on a treadmill. “Then I do arm exercises. I do now three days a week what it took me six to eight months to get into shape all those years ago. I’m just so much healthier. I don’t run to catch streetcars or buses, but what I’ve learned is to just wait for the next one,” he says.

After 20 years in the community, the Cardiopulmonary Wellness Program is reaching out now as much as ever. The reasons are clear. “One in five people should expect to die of heart disease,” Kennifer says.

The list of risk factors is ominously drawn out. “It’s high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, age, gender, diabetes, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, and family history,” Kennifer says. “And most every adult has at least one risk factor.”

While men over 50 are at greater risk for heart problems than women, the risk for women catches up to men after menopause, Kennifer says. “They lose the hormonal protection,” she says, “and then the risks become equal for both men and women.”

It’s not just about exercise. It’s about a whole new way of life.

“It took a while to educate me,” Pasquinelli says. “It was difficult changing the habits, but I’m alive and healthy at the moment because of it.”

The Wellness Program gets part of the credit.

“We have trained nurses. We keep in close contact with their doctors. We watch for medication contraindications, for infections,” Kennifer says.

“And they don’t let me slack off,” Pasquinelli adds. “It’s a good support group as a whole. When I do slack, I get the hassle: ‘Where have you been? Goofin’ off, huh?’ It makes me want to do better.”

While the program has its fair share of long-term clients who have been going weekly for years, there are the dabblers.

“They come in, do their thing and move on to something,” Pasquinelli says. “My advice to them is this: It’s your life. If you want to keep living it, get up and go do the exercise.”

Pasquinelli then considers what keeps him moving on a treadmill three days a week for the past nearly twenty years, on the eve of his 32nd wedding anniversary, then puts his motivation into perspective: “It’s funny, really. But it seems as though the older I get, the older I want to get.”

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