Struggling to keep Soundview healthy

Barbara Jones remembers her first heart attack like it was yesterday.

“Being overweight, I thought it was just asthma,” she says of the day in October, 2001 when she felt so drowsy on her way home from an evening job at Dunkin Donuts that she fell asleep on the bus and missed her stop. Her son found her walking back from Parkchester. The last thing Jones remembers is hearing him tell an operator: “Blood is coming out of my mother’s mouth.”

Jones’s heart attack was so severe that she was in intensive care for 20 days, and had a breathing tube for seven. When she emerged from hospital, she had lost two-thirds of her heart’s capacity. She was too weak to return to work at Dunkin’ Donuts and the Bronx Family Courthouse, where she had been an office manager for 21 years.

Jones describes a daily diet of ice cream, hotdogs and soda that saw her weight shoot above the 350-pound limit on the scales at the Soundview Health Center. She knew things had to change after the death of her husband in 2003 from a stroke brought on by alcohol and medication abuse, and the death of her sister from diabetes the following year.

“My GYN doctor, told me, ‘You’re heavy and you’re going to die. You must want to die! I tell you not to eat, you continue to eat,’” Jones said.

“He said if I want to live I have to come and see Renata.”

Renata Shiloah runs the Soundview nutrition clinic. In 2007, Jones decided to follow her doctor’s advice.

With help from Shiloah and the support groups at the clinic, Jones began to lose weight. The clinic provides group sessions on food and healthy eating as well as cooking and exercise classes.

Since 2008, Jones has lost 200 pounds. At 63, she now volunteers at the clinic twice a week, calling patients to remind them of their appointments and acting as captain in some of the classes.

“On Thursday it’s the heavy-set people and on Tuesday it’s the senior citizens,” Jones says. “I can relate to both!”

Barbara Jones with her grandson in 2001, before her first heart attack.

Now, Soundview Health Center is threatened with closure, a move that could rob local residents of the kind of local, clinical care that saved her life.

In August, the Department of Health and the Inspector General for Medicaid took separate measures to impose sanctions upon the clinic that would stop their participation in Medicaid for the next three years, after they discovered that Soundview lacks a Medicaid compliance program. The state also took issue with the continued involvement of the clinic’s founder and president, Pedro Espada, after he remained involved in operations despite an indictment for embezzling half a million dollars of Medicaid money.

As the majority of patients at Soundview rely on Medicaid to afford healthcare, the decision would force the center to close.

“Soundview is the only major health clinic in the neighborhood,” said Francisco Gonzales, district manager for Community Board 9.

“We need more health facilities here, not less,” Gonzales said.

With Soundview under threat of closure, the future of Jones’s health care is uncertain. If the center closes, there is no guarantee that Jones will find the same level of personal support and community spirit elsewhere.

Residents in the South Bronx face an estimated 85 percent higher risk of obesity than people in Manhattan. And it can take more than a few appointments at a clinic to break the habits of a lifetime. Shiloah’s constant encouragement and support has been vital to Jones. When she had a reaction to the flu vaccination in December 2008 resulted in congestive heart failure, Shiloah was by her side at the hospital.

“I was on deathbed watch, I was on a breathing tube,” said Jones. “But I heard Renata. I heard my friend who used to come to the clinic with me. I heard all the grandkids and I was trying to take the tube out to let them know I could hear them. They had to tie me down,” she said.

When the doctors let Jones leave the hospital, she went to stay with a friend in upstate Woodstock and ate hot dogs, her favorite food.

“I had to have hotdogs with chili and cheese – no salad – and my daughter had to rush me back because of the water build up,” she says.

With lots of support from the clinic, Jones began to change her ways. She stopped eating hot dogs and switched from fruit juice to real fruit. Jones is a avid cook, and has learned to cut out butter and oil in her recipes and swap bleached white for whole wheat flour. She feeds her grandchildren, three of whom are in her care, gluten-free lasagna.

“Now I can run with the grandkids, beat them up the stairs, play ball,” Jones said.

“I used to hear Barbara’s breathing when she was coming,” Shiloah said. “She used to take 22 pills!”

Shiloah and Jones have become close. Shiloah checks Jones is taking her heart medication, which is down to five pills a day, and gives her asthma inhalers so she doesn’t have to buy them at the pharmacy.

“You become family,” said Shiloah. “It’s more than just a patient visit, especially in my area because we meet every week and we talk about personal things.”

“I rely on doctors like Renata,” Jones said. “They were the ones who helped.”

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