• Penrose-St. Francis Health Services Associates Conquer Half Marathon And More

  • Overcoming feelings of self-doubt, erratic work schedules, a heart defect, diabetes and a myriad of other issues that could have easily become excuses, 10 Penrose-St. Francis Health Services associates flew to San Francisco in February 2014 to run a half marathon.

    The group of associates banded together last summer when President and CEO Margaret Sabin started thinking about how to develop a culture of health, not just health care, at Penrose-St. Francis.

    “A culture of health is not about what you eat, although that’s important. It’s about how you live your life. It’s about joy,” Sabin preaches in the Boot Camp classes she leads every Saturday at the hospital, in her executive team meetings, and to anyone who wants to talk about the health of the community.

    About that time, she overhead Danielle Kianka, an executive assistant in her offices, tell someone, “I deserve better than this.” Sabin thought to herself, “Yes, you do, but are you willing to do what it takes?” She proposed an idea to a few associates: What if we find five associates who want to make a change in their lives, we give them training and a buddy, and we run a half marathon as a group?

    “You don’t say ‘no’ to Margaret,” says  Kianka, 40, who has type I diabetes and had never exercised—not to mention run—before beginning the informal training program with buddy McCrea Andersen, a former collegiate athlete and now executive assistant to Sabin.

    “I figured that all I could do was make things better,” says Kianka, who quit smoking when she started the program.

    Kianka was wrong, at least when it came to her health. The emotional stress she was going through caused by a divorce combined with the new physical stress she was putting on her body through the running caused her health to actually grow worse. Her A1c blood glucose levels shot up; she had to be put on blood pressure medicine; she gained weight; and then unbearable pain started shooting up her legs when she tried to run.

    The health problems forced Kianka to change her goal from running a half marathon to walking a 5K, but she didn’t stop. “I committed to more than myself,” she says. “I committed to Margaret and to McCrea. I couldn’t just give up on everyone.

    On Sunday, Kianka started the race off with leg pain but by the end of the 3.2 miles, she was walking nearly pain free. All looked good until later that night when she experienced excruciating pain in her legs and had to go to the ER.

    “It wasn’t a fairy tell ending, but I did finish,” she says. And despite the setbacks, Kianka still has a half marathon on her bucket list.

    Marathon Team

    Along with Kianka, four other associates volunteered to participate in the program:

    • Julliana Barr, surgery
    • Susan Difrancesco, nutrition services
    • Lynette Olson, outpatient rehabilitation
    • Heidi Vagts, stroke program

    Four associates who had previously run a half marathon, including Andersen, volunteered to be their buddies:

    • Tami Charles, nutrition services
    • Erin Heberlein, EAP and Strive 
    • Andi McDonough, outpatient rehabilitation

    At the beginning of the program, the volunteers didn’t know exactly when or where they would run their half marathon, but they hit the streets and trails anyway. Most participated in several local 5k and 10-mile runs to help prepare them. Part way through the program, a donor provided funding through the Penrose-St. Francis Health Foundation and the group set its sights on San Francisco.

    Despite less than ideal conditions (45 degrees and raining), every associate finished the race with times ranging from 1 hour, 54 minutes to 3 hours, 6 minutes.  As they had been doing for the past six months, the members of the team stood by to support each runner as she crossed the finish line.

    “This is really the heart of my passion,” says Sabin. “I want to build a culture of health where everyone can have the life they deserve.”

    Susan Difrancesco, barista, nutrition services
    SusanandTami(Susan (right) and Tami after they completed the 1/2 marathon)

    Out of the blue, Susan Difrancesco suddenly had an urge to run. So she ran around the block at Penrose Hospital.

    “I just had a random urge,” Difrancesco, 47, a barista at the coffee bar at Penrose Hospital. After she ran around the block, which actually turned out to be a mile, she told her manager and exercise partner Tami Charles about it. Tami’s response was what Difrancesco had come to expect. “She said, ‘Great; let’s do a 5K.”    

    In the fall of 2010, the pair ran their first 5K race and continued running regularly for several years. But a couple of years later, Difrancesco hurt her knee and had to stop running. When she began again last April, she set a goal of once again running a 5K. Charles had her usual response: Let’s do a half marathon!

    Charles and Difrancesco joined seven other Penrose-St. Francis Health Services associates who had taken up a challenge by CEO Margaret Sabin to train and run a half marathon. On Feb. 2, the pair stepped across the finish line of the Kaiser Permanent half marathon in San Francisco.

    From years of exercising together, they knew they couldn’t have done it without each other. And they are looking forward to mentoring other people in fitness routines, fulfilling Sabin’s goal of using the group as the core of a movement to shift the health at Penrose-St. Francis and then beyond to the community.

    “Remember the feeling you have when you cross the finish line. Take a moment to really feel it, then bottle that feeling and give it to someone else who is emotionally bankrupt. You may just save someone’s life,” Sabin told the group in their last team meeting before flying to San Francisco. “The person who says, “Ah, come on” is the best friend we can have.”

    Julliana Barr, RN, heart team
    JulianaandTami(Julliana (left) with Tami)

    Julliana Barr has become a master at using time effectively. With 12-hour days in the OR that often last longer if emergency cases come through the door at Penrose Hospital, four children and a third grandchild on the way,  it would be easy for Barr to beg off exercising.

    But this cardiac surgery nurse has learned to snatch time when she can get it and head to the gym or out the door for a run. “It’s hit or miss,” Barr says.

    Barr, 47, is a regular at the Saturday morning Penrose Boot Camp, a 90-minute fitness class led by CEO Margaret Sabin. So when Sabin went looking for volunteers to train and run a half marathon, she looked Barr’s way.

    “If we’re serious about changing the health of women, we need to make sure that normal women with busy lives can do it,” Sabin often says.

    Despite not liking to run, Barr tries to fit in two or three runs each week. “I don’t like running, but I like the results,” she says. Running has helped her decrease her blood pressure and her goal is to eventually stop taking blood pressure medication. “I feel better and I have a lot more energy.

    Her advice to other women who are busy and can’t seem to find the time to exercise is a take on the Nike slogan of Just Do It. “Do it when you can,” advises Barr. She also recommends training with a group like she did. “I don’t like running, but I do like the group runs. They keep me accountable.”


    HeidiSBHeidi Vagts, stroke program nurse coordinator
    The race was run on Feb. 2 which was also Super Bowl Sunday. Heidi (on the left) joined the group after the race to watch the big game.

    A year ago, Heidi Vagts decided she needed to get healthier. Her goal was to set an example for her 5-year-old daughter.

    “I wanted my daughter to look up to Mom and be proud,” Vagts says.

    About 14,000 feet up at her, as it turns out. Vagts’ fitness goal was to complete the Pikes Peak Challenge, a 13-mile hike to the summit of the 14er. She completed it last September, so when Erin Heberlein, her personal trainer and a wellness specialist with Penrose’s STRIVE program, asked her to become part of a Penrose group that was going to run a half marathon, Vagts didn’t hesitate.

    “I didn’t run; I had never run, but I committed anyway,” Vagts says. “I like challenges.” Vagts’ physical regimen isn’t easy. The 36-year-old single mother has Addison’s Disease, a condition that requires her to take steroids which cause her to gain weight. “I needed to stop using that as an excuse” to be unhealthy, she says.

    Vagts’ determination, along with her successes of summiting Pikes Peak and completing the half marathon, has inspired others around her. Several members of the stroke team at Penrose Hospital are training for this year’s Pikes Peak Challenge, her sister and cousin who live in Kansas have started running, and her father has offered to ride his bike and train Vagts for her future races.

    “The social support has been so key to Heidi’s success,” says her buddy Heberlein. “It’s not that she couldn’t do it alone, but it would be much harder.”


    Lynette Olson, physical therapy assistant

    LynetteAndiJulliana(Lynette (center) with Andi and Julliana)

    Twenty two years hasn’t been long enough to wipe the self-doubt and worthless feelings created by an abusive spouse out of Lynette Olson’s head. But 13 miles might just do it.

    On Feb. 2, 2014, Lynette, 46, who works in outpatient rehabilitation at Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, ran the Kaiser Permanente half marathon in San Francisco. Her hope was that as she stepped across the finish line, she wouldn’t just conquer her first half marathon but she will have developed a method of coping with the negative self-chatter that occasionally plagues her.

    “Twenty-two years later and I still hear, ‘You’re fat, you’re stupid, you’re lazy,” Olson says. Now when she starts to hear those words, she puts on her running shoes and pumps up the volume on the theme song to the movie Rocky.

    “I hear that music and I say to myself, ‘No one’s going to beat me down any more. I’m not going to beat myself down.”

    Olson not only had to overcome self-doubts to run the half marathon, she also had to deal with atrial septal defect (holes in her heart) and mitral valve prolapse, conditions that make running especially difficult. “I get extremely short of breath when I run,” Olson says.

    And although she swears that she hates running (“I don’t even like to drive my car that far,” she says about a recent 10-mile run.), she’s not about to give it up. “It’s good for me physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

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