A couple of years ago, Cynthia Bolling had to use a wheelchair to get around Via Christi Village — that is, when she left her room.
At the end of this month, she will walk out of the rehabilitation center to a new home with the help of just a cane, having shed more than 100 pounds and the depression and anxiety that contributed to her weight gain.
Bolling, 64, first came to Via Christi in 2014 with a broken leg and ankle from a fall during a seizure. She was living with her daughter, Misty Tittel, in Russell at the time. The injury required surgery and lots of rehabilitation work.
Doctors told her Via Christi would be the best place for her. She didn’t want to stay, however.
Bolling credits Via Christa CEO Betsy Schwien with changing her mind. They knew each other from when Bolling had been in rehab in a Russell facility several years before.
“I wanted to leave and she said ‘You need therapy for your leg, you can’t leave yet.’ So she talked me into staying,” Bolling said.
“When she first got here, she had a lot of really strong pain medications, dealing with a lot of pain,” said Ariane Arias, director of nursing at Via Christi.
“She used to be confined so much, she would either be in her room or stay in her neighborhood,” Arias said, referring to the sections of rooms centered around common spaces.
In 2015, Bolling had back surgery and had to use a wheelchair.
As part of her therapy for her leg and her back, the staff had her ride a recumbent stationary bike. But even with that, Bolling started to put on weight.
“I got in a wheelchair and I just stayed and ate. I got up to 282 and a half (pounds)," she said Thursday in her room at Via Christi, 2225 Canterbury.
Bolling had worked as a CNA in earlier years and remained active before her fall. Being restricted in her movement and putting on the weight brought on a deep depression, she said.
“Depression made me anxious, and anxiety made me depressed. So it’s a double whammy,” she said. “I wouldn’t even open my window blinds when I was here. I always had it dark in here."
In contrast, on Thursday, bright light streamed into her room. Teddy bears and stuffed animals — mostly gifts from friends and family — lined her bed and drawings by children hung on the walls.
Her wheelchair is now more of a desk, she said with a laugh, gesturing at a stack of books and papers.
“I use this to dry my towels,” she said of the walker sitting to the other side.
Today, she weighs around 154 pounds, a weight she said she feels comfortable with.
Bolling said exercise, eating right and God helped her lose the weight. Medication helped with the depression and anxiety.
It was when she reached 282 pounds she decided she needed a change.
“I got tired of being overweight. So I gave up desserts and candy and started eating soups and salads and fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Was it difficult to do?
“No,” she said. “God was there for me.
“I just said, ‘Please help me, God. I need your help. I can’t do this alone.’ ”
That little prayer helped her change her mindset immediately, she said.
“Right there it was answered. I said ‘Wow, I’m going to do this.’ My feelings got positive. The depression just ebbed away,” she said. “I was still in a wheelchair. I could walk a little bit.”
In December 2017, a good friend died, and Bolling said the loss helped her decide she didn’t want to be in the wheelchair anymore.
“So I just started walking with my walker, got to where I was using a cane,” she said.
The stationary bicycles she used for therapy became part of her exercise routine 45 minutes a day. Journaling, reading her Bible more and attending Mass also helped.
Today, she is free of the seizures and many of the medications she was taking before.
When she had to have two more back surgeries last fall, she was able to bounce back quickly.
“That was a bit of a trial for me, but I made up my mind I was going to walk after, and I was up as soon as I could, and that was the day after surgery,” she said.
Throughout her walks, she made many friends among both the staff and residents. And she realized she had a mission in life.
“To care for other people, and to help them as much as I can,” she said.
It’s a mission she has accomplished at Via Christi, Arias said.
“Cindy is just a wonder for us. She is so awesome,” Arias said. “Since she has lost all this weight and been able to move, she’s been a support to everyone in the building. She goes to other neighborhoods, people get excited to see her. I’ve seen her be supportive to families when their loved ones pass away, and not even in her neighborhood, but all over the facility.
“She’s just a light for everyone around her."
Arias told of a resident who passed away recently whom Bolling would walk with every day.
“She would wait every day for Cindy to come ‘pick her up’ and they would walk together,” Arias said. “It’s hard sometimes for the elderly to find fulfillment in their life, and even things like that, just knowing every day that Cindy was going to come pick her up and go walking with her was the highlight of her day."
Bolling plans to continue her mission in her new home at Centennial Towers, 2502 Sherman Ave., where she will move July 1. She plans to get to know as many of her neighbors as she can.
She plans to come back and visit her friends at Via Christi, too.
Those friendships were apparent Thursday as Bolling led the way through the hallways, saying hello and visiting with nearly everyone who passed by. As staff gathered around a bench for a photo with Bolling, there were hugs, laughter and even a few tears as they spoke of her journey.
“She has come a long way,” said Karen Bieker, spiritual care director.
“She has worked so hard and diligently. I’ve been here a little over two years, and the transformation from that first day that I met her to now … unbelievable,” she said, pausing as emotion welled up.
The staff is making sure she’ll have everything she needs in her new home, although Bolling said she still needs an exercise bike, and they’re preparing a party for her on June 28. It’s as much a celebration of her success as it is a farewell party.
“We don’t see stories like this happen very often,” Arias said. “Usually it’s hard for people to overcome something like she has overcome. She was just getting more and more piled on her plate. A lot of us would crumble under all that. She fought tooth and nail. And we are going to miss the heck out of her."
“It’s been a life learning experience for me,” Bolling said. “I’ve never had an experience like this, but it’s been wonderful. Everybody’s been very positive. I appreciate everybody. I can’t name just one.”
She said she’s learned some lessons through her experience.
“It’s important to have a balance between meals and what you eat,” she said. “I’ve learned that exercise needs to be part of my life for mental and health reasons.”
And even though Bolling has learned better eating habits, she doesn’t deny herself an occasional snack. She is looking forward to having a special treat at her party — a Corona with lime.
“And hopefully nachos,” she said.