Health Heroes

Never underestimate the power of a good role model. Even Aristotle believed that we learn to be moral (virtuous) by modeling the behavior of moral people. Continual modeling makes good behavior a habit. Role models are especially important when it comes to getting—and staying—in shape or triumphing over adversity. Here are four Delawareans who fit the bill. Their determination, passion and “Yes, I can” attitude are an inspiration.

Photograph by Tom NutterKyle Shaffer

Kyle Shaffer of Wyoming struggled with her weight most of her life. “I smell food and it goes right to my hips,” says Shaffer, who is 5-foot-1. “I am genetically predisposed to thunder thighs.”

After having her first child, Ryan, her weight soared to 155 pounds. Today Shaffer is a trim 110 pounds. She is also the proud owner of Unveiling the Real You, a personal training company for women in the Dover area.

Shaffer became interested in fitness after the birth of Ryan, now 9. She went to Weight Watchers and became an avid walker. Before the birth of her second child, Amanda, she dabbled in running. “But when you have huge hips and thighs, all you feel is baboom baboom on your hips,” she says. “It’s the most horrible feeling in the world.”

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Unbeknownst to Shaffer, she had a defective uterus, which led to the birth of Amanda three weeks too soon. Shaffer spent the next three months going to the hospital, delivering breast milk to Amanda, who initially weighed in at 1 pound, 3 ounces. After the crisis passed, Shaffer found a new outlook on fitness. “I wanted to do something to better myself,” she says.

It was about more than getting fit. Shaffer has Factor V Leiden thrombophilia, an inherited blood-clotting disorder that gives her a higher-than-average risk for developing clots in her veins. Exercise helps counter the condition.

During the year Shaffer worked on her body, her mother-in-law died at age 61 of breast cancer. Shaffer decided she wanted to help others lose weight and reduce their risk of disease. She opened her business part time in 2006, went full time in 2008. She is certified by the American Aerobic Association International-International Sports Medicine Association in gliding, personal fitness training, weight management and sports nutrition.

Her clients range in age from 35 to 75. “No one can tell someone to lose weight or exercise. They have to be ready for the commitment,” Shaffer says. “Once they’ve made the commitment, they come to me. I want to help them achieve their dreams.”
 

Page 2: Drew Sanclemente

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Photograph by Tom NutterDrew Sanclemente

Ever since she was in kindergarten, Drew Sanclemente has demonstrated a will to succeed. “When she gets her mind on something, she’s driven,” says her mother, Marti Sanclemente.

So when Drew’s swim coach in 2005 suggested she do triathlons, Drew started training. In June 2006 she placed first in her age group at her first competition, which gave her a free pass to the Youth and Junior Elite National Championships, where she placed fourth. In August she won first place in her age group at nationals in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with a time of 29.44.3 minutes—a minute and seven seconds faster than her nearest competitor.

And she is just 12 years old. “She took to triathlons like a fish to water,” her mom says.

In 2008 she participated in four kids’ triathlons.

Drew, who attends Alfred G. Waters Middle School in Middletown, likes the triple whammy of triathlons. “It’s cool that there are three sports instead of one,” she says.

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Because Drew is a competitive swimmer, she covers that portion of her training during swim practice, three hours a week. She bikes twice a week—one 15- to 20-mile ride and one 6- to 8-mile ride—and she runs up to 3.5 miles a week. Her parents limit the distance because running is hard on a growing body.

Drew is now gearing up for this year’s national event in Colorado Springs. This time she’ll compete in the 13- to 15-year-old age group. That should not be a problem. Last year she beat all the girls 15 and under—and all but three of the boys.

Drew would like to compete in the Olympics. She plans to attend the University of Southern California, which offers a triathlon scholarship. She’d like to become a physical education teacher or a physical therapist. But for now, she’s happy to keep swimming, biking and running her way to the finish line.
 

Page 3: Har Ming Lau

 

Debbie Lau (left) and Har Ming Lau attribute their health to tai chi and their students. Photograph by Tom NutterHar Ming Lau

At age 27, Dr. Har Ming Lau of Harrington had the world by the tail. He was on his way toward a residency in podiatric surgery at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, he was devoted to his martial arts practice, and he could easily run five miles in hilly Valley Forge Park.

Then in 1998 it all came crashing down. Seeking treatment for a bad cold, he learned he had idiopathic cardiomyopathy, an inflammation of the heart that impairs its performance. “I was devastated,” Lau says. “I’d worked so hard to get to medical school. It was taken out from under me.”

The prognosis was dire, but you would not know it today. Lau, who owns Traditional Chinese Tai Chi, a school in Camden-Wyoming, owes his recovery to a heart transplant and dedication to tai chi, which he practiced in the hospital while awaiting his new heart.

Doctors don’t know why Lau developed cardiomyopathy. They now suspect it might be related to childhood atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm. Initially, medication bought him some time. But the atrial fibrillation grew worse. He quit practicing medicine and joined the Delaware Division of Public Health in 2000, where he still works, and he opened his tai chi school in 2001.

But by 2004, he says, “It hit me. I was done.” A special device was implanted directly into the left ventricle to help the heart perform. In and out of the hospital, Lau—who started studying kung fu at age 12—practiced tai chi whenever he could. In 2005, over July 4 weekend, he learned a heart was available. A week after surgery, he was discharged.

“I did tai chi at a very slow pace,” he recalls. “I couldn’t stand or hold a position without shaking.” Still, doctors were surprised at how well he adapted. “I think I pushed myself more than I needed to,” Lau says. “I was constantly challenging myself.” Instead of feeling frustrated, he was happy with whatever progress he made. He can now do most of the moves he did before, except for handsprings.

He feels lucky that his body has not rejected the heart—a threat he’ll always live with. Last summer he met the donor’s mother, who in fall attended Lau’s wedding. “It brought peace to me and closure to the donor family,” says Lau, who was about the same age as the donor when he received the heart.

He encourages couch potatoes to avoid embarking on any old exercise program. “Find something you enjoy,” he says. “When it’s work, there is no more fun.”

Lau, who is on the Delaware Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Board, urges people of all ages to visit the program’s web site (citizen.dmv.de.gov/public.ejs?command=PublicOdHome) and sign up. “People have the misconception that if they’re 70 or 80, no one will want their organs,” he says. “But there’s skin, cornea, ligaments, even bone marrow. It all has a life-saving impact.”
 

Page 4: Debbie Lau

 

Debbie Lau (left) and Har Ming Lau attribute their health to tai chi and their students. Photograph by Tom Nutter

Debbie Lau

Debbie Lau of Harrington, a first-grade teacher, had always led an active lifestyle, making time for aerobics, running and tai chi, which she started practicing in 2004. It was at the Traditional Chinese Tai Chi school that she met her husband-to-be, Har Ming Lau, the school’s owner.

In October 2007, a routine mammogram revealed a suspicious mass. Lau had breast cancer. She embarked on a treatment involving both chemotherapy and radiation. Chemotherapy, she recalls, affected her mind as well as her body.

“It’s like there is a glass wall,” she says. “You can see what you need to do, but you can’t get there.” She continued to do tai chi and take walks. “Being able to exercise and fall back on something I knew and loved helped me through all those times. It made me feel like I was still here when I had felt like I wasn’t.”

Lau and a friend who was also undergoing cancer treatments would push each other to exercise, though the joint pain could make 10 to 15 minutes of work seem like forever. “I just kept moving,” she says. “It’s like that old saying. You just put one foot in front of the other. You need to do something without thinking for your medical condition, even if it’s just for five or 10 minutes.”

Because the drugs created a heart condition, she can’t work out as much as she did before the cancer. But she tells herself she is doing more than she could do last year.

She’s sympathetic to the patients she sees on visits to the Tunnell Cancer Center at Beebe Medical Center. “You can do it,” she says. “Just hang in there. Get your mind strong and your body strong. That is what helped me beat the disease.”  

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