Finding community, catalysts for change in Springfield improves health

By virtue of the way the fur swirls around her hips, Phil and Nancy Calland’s veterinarian tells them their golden-coated cat Sunshine is a “2 percenter,” meaning it’s a very special animal.

The only indoor cat they’ve ever had — and the smartest — she seems to radiate health like a sun radiates warmth as it rises over the horizon.

Nancy wasn’t sure the cat was even alive a few months back when she spotted a patch of fur in their front yard on Selma Road just north of Shawnee High School.

After the fur sprinted across their driveway, it took a couple of trips to the vet to get the animal inside it squared away.

All this I discovered while paying the Callands a visit when I ran into them at Dr. Narinder Saini’s exercise place, which is tucked behind the Hometown Urgent Care on First Street across from Meijer.

It had been 20 years since I’d pulled up their lane just to ask about the beautiful riot of flowers and vegetables they grow each year.

Not long before I met them, Phil had survived a near fatal heart attack and begun living with the first in a series of a combined pacemaker-defibrillators that has helped to keep him alive.

The attack had come on a Saturday in March — a happenstance he thinks helped to save him because the volunteer firefighters were off from their regular jobs for the weekend and, as a result, had him in the emergency room at Community Hospital before his heart stopped — twice.

He’s started exercising under Saini’s supervision at the now defunct Heart House on East High Street soon after, the same year as former Springfield Police Officer Jim Ullom.

A month and a day after Ullom retired on July 17, 1995, “in the early hours of the morning, I woke up with the big chest pain,” he recalled.

Entering the exercise program the next January didn’t prevent him from a second episode in 1998, another angioplasty.

But he’s convinced the exercise did quicken his recovery then and once again in 2011, when he became among the first bypass surgery patients at the freshly opened downtown Springfield Regional Medical Center.

“I was back in the saddle within weeks,” he said.

“There’s no question in my mind” that regular exercise started after his problems emerged is the reason he survived the surgery and recovered so quickly.

It’s why Ullom invited me to visit Saini’s current facility during one of the carry-in lunches they occasionally have.

Saini, who himself suffered a near fatal heart attack in 1990 and considers himself as much patient as doctor, insists his contribution is modest.

“I’m providing the space, they’re choosing what to do,” he said.

Starting at the Heart House in 1992, he moved to the Bushnell Building downtown in 2002 when the Heart House closed, then out to First Street half a dozen or so years ago.

Of the 50 regulars at the facility, “almost all of them have cardiac issues,” he said.

“In heart disease, stress is really an important factor,” he added. “When you have that type of community feeling (among patients), I think that’s a good stress manager.”

Saini is more modest about the important role he has played in forming and sustaining the exercising community.

It’s not lost on Sue Fisher, who was sent home from the Cleveland Clinic 15 years ago, then taken to Ohio State University Medical Center, where her family was told to prepare for the worst after confirming how badly her heart was damaged.

At Ohio State, “they kind of said I could live as long as I totally changed my whole life — eating habits, everything,” she said.

“I had my couple of days of crying,” Fisher said. “Then I said, ‘You know what: There’s only one person who’s going to make this decision.’”

Although she knew that person was her, she had taken Saini’s book “Create a Healthy Heart” with her to Columbus, and recalls thinking, “If I’m going to live, I’m going to have to have (his) help.”

After a couple of desperate days being unable to reach him, Fisher got the strong dose of hope she needed when she heard him say the four magical words: “I can help you.”

Fisher still misses the food she so loved, less so the cigarettes and stress that were part of her daily life for so long. But she loves dog sitting and working on the flower beds of a friend she met about 15 years ago who has largely given Fisher the run of the place.

“Three-fourths of the time I’m out here by myself,” she said in the large yard off Roscommon Drive with an ample woods behind it. “I tell them, if they find me dead out here one day, they’ll know I died happy.”

The red garden she’s developing along a low wall recently put in has vining phlox, bee balm, red geraniums, roses, hibiscus and coleus.

A yellow garden across the yard has grasses and shrubs, Martha’s broomsticks, gerber daisies, marigolds and, despite ample sunlight, a healthy community of hostas.

And, in some ways, the community of hostas and plants and her enjoyment of gardening is another sense of hope and support for her, because it’s what she loves to do.

She exercises as best she can five days a week at Saini’s location. On the other two, she goes to the grocery, grabs a cart and walks the aisles.

“Sure, it scares me,” she said of her health, “and sometimes I feel like all I do is take care of myself.”

“When I go to bed, I think, ‘Oh, let me have tomorrow. I have these flowers I’ve got to plant or I’ve got to take care of a dog this week. Every night, I say, ‘Please let me through tomorrow, I appreciate today.”

It’s easy to get isolated in our own worlds. In the midst of our own strivings and struggles, it’s easy to be blinded to the strivings and struggles of those right next to us. I know this because it’s a fault I’m quite familiar with.

The problem, of course, is that this blinds us to the extraordinary people around us who are striving and struggling each day. It blinds us, too, to the fact that there are communities of people within our community helping one another in the same quest.

Nancy Calland, who also exercises at Saini’s place with her husband, says the rowing machine seems more like fun in the company of the two nurses she exercises with.

“I don’t even call it work because we visit,” she said.

Ullom remarks, too, on the good-natured ribbing given to those who miss too many days of exercise — ribbing often wrapped up in concern with what might have kept them away.

Modest by nature, Saini calls himself a catalyst, someone who merely provides a caring community with a place to gather.

But I don’t think he’s an ordinary catalyst. He’s one some of his patients have followed for more than 20 years from the Heart House to the Bushnell Building and now out to First Street.

And it’s because of an often overlooked quality that’s not very glitzy — one the Callands mentioned.

After learning about a granddaughter’s health problem, they said, he’s always asked them about her — and with the same sincerity he always asks about them.

“He’s warm and accepting of people,” Phil Calland said.

Not having seen the pattern of fur on his hips, I can’t say with certainty. But it’s just possible that, like the Callands’ cat, Sunshine, Dr. Saini is one of those 2 percent catalysts — extraordinary because he reminds us that human qualities, gathered in community, heal our wounds and make our lives better in ways it’s so easy to overlook.

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