‘I Would Have Missed So Much’: Detroit Woman Credits Innovative Program with Saving Her Life

Julie Bitely

| 4 min read

Helen Thomas is looking forward to turning 60. She wants to take a birthday cruise. She turns 57 in April, so there’s lots of time to plan and dream. It wasn’t always that way. At one point the Detroit woman was so depressed she contemplated hurting herself. Instead of looking forward to calendar milestones, she wanted to stop the pages from turning entirely. “I would have missed so much living if I had gone then,” Thomas said. Along with medication, she credits her life’s positive turn to a program at Detroit’s McAuley Health Center. Designed by Carla Groh, a project director at McAuley and professor at University of Detroit Mercy's College of Health Professions, and Joan Urbancic, a fellow professor, the 24-week courses integrated exercise, nutrition and educational counseling, as well as spiritual components for underserved, obese African American women. They met as a group for the first 12 weeks, then attempted to continue their positive momentum on their own for another 12.
Helen Thomas with her granddaughter. Groh and Urbancic wanted to see if a lifestyle approach would positively impact quality of life, especially mental health. Six cohorts of women completed the program from 2008 to 2011, with positive results reflected. The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation helped fund the research. The women had statistically significant improvements in body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, waist circumference, and total cholesterol. There were also notable mental health improvements. Scores measuring mental health, social functioning and emotional health were up at the 12-week mark and did not return to baseline levels at 24 weeks. The study findings were published in Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. Groh said the program was life-changing for many of the women who participated. She sees them occasionally at McAuley and some have maintained weight loss and other positive lifestyle changes. They always ask her when the program will be back and she thinks that’s due in large part to the group dynamic and support the program offered. “We have known for a very long time that social support is critical to both physical and mental health but this study reinforced the importance of social support to overall health,” Groh explained. “Moreover, in women with limited resources and who are often the matriarch of their families, having time to develop friendships outside of the family system is not always easy so a program such as the one we offered can go a long way in re-affirming the importance of taking care of themselves and the centrality of friendships.” Thomas said she’d take part in the program again if it were offered. Depression runs in her family and she was down on her luck before the program entered her life, having just lost her sister, job and home. She boarded the bus that took her to the program twice a week at just the right time. “Going to the class made it so that every week I had something to look forward to,” she said. When she goes to McAuley for health care, she sometimes runs into women from the program and they always greet each other with a hug. In addition to making big future plans, Thomas celebrates the everyday as well. She wants to get bikes so she and her granddaughter can go for rides this spring. Dance parties at home regularly break out. “Nothing’s wrong when you’re dancing,” she said. “Life is fine.” Although the program is no longer offered, Groh said it’s had a lasting impact in the way practitioners at the health center advise patients to make lifestyle changes. “I always encourage my clients to be more active and to find a partner to exercise with,” Groh said. “I often tell them about the study and the results. I realize it is hard for people to be active when they are depressed, but sometimes they just need to force themselves to move.” The study also shed light on the social determinants of health as it relates to the health center. When patients who went through the program had barriers removed to help them lead a healthier lifestyle, they were able to move forward. Groh said in her experience, men and women who come to the health center overwhelmingly want to be healthier and adhere to their treatment plans, but many don’t have the resources or don’t know where to look for the resources and oftentimes feel overwhelmed when it comes to making changes. “Knowing that people can stick to a 24-week exercise program and can make changes in their eating and exercise habits give the nurse practitioners hope that people will change over time,” Groh said. “We need to keep encouraging them, providing resources when able and help them find the resources when needed.” If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
Photo credit: Protopian Pickle Jar
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