Multiple strokes, diabetes, a heart attack – even Lupus – aren’t enough to keep the 63-year-old CHF member from her goals.
Life has been dealing Ana Maria Maresca tough cards for most of her adult life – starting with the challenge of legally immigrating to the U.S. as a pregnant 19-year-old; working three jobs as a single mother to put her two kids through private school; and now dealing with a myriad of life-threatening health issues like diabetes and multiple strokes. But never mind the odds, because the 63-year-old Center for Health & Fitness (CHF) member always seems to flip a winning hand.
“I don’t give up,” says Ana with resounding grit in her voice. “I always say ‘if you can’t climb the mountain, you better find a way around it.’”
But it certainly hasn’t been easy as of late.
At 39, Ana was diagnosed with Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body, including vital organs. The jarring diagnosis marked the end of her career as a bilingual teacher’s aide at Los Angeles Unified School District. To this day, Ana, who is also diabetic, relies on a series of side-effect-heavy medications to help keep the incurable disease at bay.
“I’ve gained 40 pounds from my medication,” she says. “And when you’re 5’1’’, that’s a lot of weight to put on. Not to mention it causes a multitude of other health problems.”
To help counter the weight gain, Ana joined CHF in 2012, a low-cost community exercise center run by Beach Cities Health District. She quickly fell into an exercise routine and began making friends around the gym. Ana recalls how CHF was becoming the support system she needed to thrive.
“If I hadn’t started coming to CHF, I’d have been sitting home alone in a lot of pain stewing on my own misfortune.”
But, sadly, just as things were looking up, misfortune struck Ana again – not once, but twice. First, she suffered a heart attack in late 2012, yet somehow managed to drive herself to the emergency room for lifesaving treatment. Her subsequent recovery forced her to take an extended break from physical activity.
Then, nearly five years removed from her nearly fatal heart attack, Ana lost sight in her left eye while driving. As luck would have it, a passing police officer noticed her erratic driving, pulled her over and immediately had her rushed her to the hospital where Ana was treated for what turned out to be a series of strokes.
“I felt marked for death,” says Ana, shaking her head in disbelief. “I was just waiting for what’s going to come next.”
Fortunately, what came next was a much-needed stroke of luck in the form of sage advice from her neurologist.
“He told me that I needed to commit to exercise and take back my life.”
Heeding his words, Ana returned to CHF in 2017 for the first time in years. She enrolled in personal training with medical exercise specialist Brian Fuentes once a week. Together, the pair developed a routine consisting of low-impact exercises, like stretching, walking and light resistance training, to help build mobility back up in Ana’s lower body, which has poor circulation and frequent surges of pain due to damage from the series of strokes she suffered.
“Brian knows exactly what to do to bring movement back to my legs and get my blood flowing. I’ve recently started coming twice a week because I can’t get enough. I’d been to so many physical therapies, but this is what has made a difference for me,” Ana proudly grins.
Aside from regaining mobility, one of Ana’s biggest hurdles has been transportation. She lost her license following her series of strokes and has since been relying on the WAVE public transit system to get to and from the gym.
Much like the handful of hardships she’s faced in recent years, however, it’s not enough to stop Ana from persevering. Multiple times a week she boards the bus for CHF, and to the recent astonishment of her drivers, she no longer uses a walker or cane to do it.
“They’ve really gotten to see my progress,” says Ana, who just months ago didn’t have the mobility or strength to do simple chores like laundry or dishes let alone climb bus stairs. “It’s a great feeling to have others recognize your improvement. It’s motivating.”
And comment they have. CHF staff members, like General Manager Cindy Foster, are quick to praise her progress and point to Ana as an example of the power of determination in the face of adversity.
“She’s an amazing person,” says Cindy. “True grit is a phrase that comes to mind when I think what she’s accomplishing. Talk about a comeback story, wow, she’s a special kind of tough.”
But the ever-humble survivor prefers to deflect credit back to her trainer and the gym.
“I have no pain in my legs because I come here, and that’s worth a million dollars to me,” says Ana. “I’m living on borrowed time, so I’m going to cherish it, spend it with family, and just make the most of it.”