Merlene Davis: A parent teaches Meadowthorpe students about the importance of heart health

Logan Peel, left, worked the jump rope as classmates Willie McGhee and Elias McKenzie jumped at Meadowthorpe Elementary. The students jump rope to raise money for the American Heart Association. They were inspired after the mother of a classmate suffered a series of strokes.
Logan Peel, left, worked the jump rope as classmates Willie McGhee and Elias McKenzie jumped at Meadowthorpe Elementary. The students jump rope to raise money for the American Heart Association. They were inspired after the mother of a classmate suffered a series of strokes. Herald-Leader

On Feb. 1, 2010, Jesi Bowman awoke feeling a bit off. Her head was hurting, and that wasn't normal for her.

The full-time nursing student, mother and wife called her husband, Tim, to advise him of her concerns and headed off to class.

The pain increased. Before her second class, she called her husband again. He urged her to seek medical help, but she decided, again, to head to class. But after that class, she went to the health clinic, where a doctor told her it appeared that she was having a stroke. She laughed.

"I said, 'I just need more caffeine and I'll be fine,'" Bowman told him. As they walked to a monitoring area, however, Bowman collapsed, falling to her left side.

Bowman had the first of four strokes that would occur over 20 months. They were later determined to be caused by a combination of antiphospholipid syndrome, which she knew she had, and atrial fibrillation, which she didn't.

"It has been an interesting adventure," she said.

Were Bowman my age, my size and as inactive as I am, heart disease and stroke would be expected. But she isn't. She is 34, fit and active. We don't think of those characteristics when we think of heart disease.

But we should.

The American Heart Association says more women die of heart disease than from all cancers combined, and heart disease knows no age limit.

Although Bowman had had symptoms of atrial fibrillation — an arrhythmia or problem with the rate or rhythm of her heartbeat — it had never been diagnosed until after her third stroke.

At 21, she was diagnosed with anti phospholipid syndrome, an autoimmune disease, mostly in young women, that makes abnormal proteins in the blood that leads to improper blood flow and possible clots.

"I'm very active," she said. "I was doing everything right and still having strokes."

Doctors said the combination of the two diseases was a perfect storm, Bowman said. But it was not a storm that would blow her off course for very long.

"I take a stopwatch with me and give myself 10 minutes to cry and get it all out," she said. "I call it my temper tantrum with God."

Each stroke paralyzed her left side, causing her to endure weeks of rehabilitation to regain the use of her left hand and arm and to learn to walk again.

After the first stroke, with help from physical therapists at Cardinal Hill Hospital, it took six months for her to walk on her own. She also had to relearn speech and sequences.

Through it all — her last stroke was in October — the students at Meadowthorpe Elementary School cheered her on. Bowman is the vice president of the Meadowthorpe PTA, and her daughter, Katlyn, attends school there.

The students applauded when she progressed from a wheelchair to a walker and then to independence.

"By the students seeing me at school in the different states (of recovery), they could see that Ms. Jesi is still striving," she said. "I have my daughter looking at me, and I wanted to be an example to her. Nothing can stop you from living your life."

At this point in her recovery, it's hard to tell that she has had strokes. If she overdoes it, however, her daughter has noticed that Bowman drags her left leg ever so slightly.

Bowman thinks being fit helped her recover from those four strokes in less than two years, and she wanted to do something for the students at Meadowthorpe that would help them stay heart-healthy. She teamed with physical education teacher Monica Nicholson to create a monthlong series of activities to emphasize the need to be active and to eat healthy.

In addition to artwork, National Wear Red Day outfits and prizes, there have been heart-healthy facts given out on morning announcements, and the daily "15 seconds for your heart," in which children are encouraged to dance and jump to get their blood flowing and hearts racing.

Nicholson also has encouraged the students to participate in the "Jump Rope for Heart" fund-raiser, in which the heart association gives a water bottle and a jump rope for a $15 donation.

Although it is a total body workout, jumping rope is becoming a lost art, it seems. Nicholson said she has to teach the kindergartners how to hold the rope and jump, which blew my mind. I don't recall a time when I was that age that I didn't jump rope.

"The boys want to jump backward," Nicholson said. "But they all finally get it. First graders are good."

The students have enjoyed the activities so much, some have asked for more. So Nicholson started an after-school boot camp on Fridays.

In addition, the students have been encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more water instead of sodas, and exercise at least 15 to 20 minutes a day.

"Making healthier choices benefits everyone in the long run," Bowman said.

"The key is not to give up," she said. "There is life after stroke and heart disease."

February, the Heart Healthy Month, is drawing to a close, but we all need to make being heart-healthy a lifelong routine.

Put a picture of Bowman on the refrigerator for inspiration.

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