There was a time when Sandy Vargas could walk from her bedroom to her kitchen, but only if she would then be able to lie down to rest afterwards. Now she is a distance swimmer, and walks a dozen miles daily. Here is the inspirational story of how a patient and her UNC doctor teamed up to achieve lasting results.

Sandy Vargas with “Lexi”
Swimming has helped transform Sandy Vargas’ health

How did you embark on this journey?

In my late 30s, due to having rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain, I had drifted into an unhealthy lifestyle of eating poorly and not exercising. I was allergic to a number of pain medications. I couldn’t sleep at night. Due to these factors as well as the steroids I needed to treat my condition, my weight climbed to over 300 pounds and I had to use a wheelchair. Things seemed hopeless. I had gone from being a vegetarian who ate well, to someone who ate literally anything, such as an entire pizza at one sitting.

How did you begin to overcome these hurdles?

I was working with my rheumatologist, Dr. Joanne Jordan (at the UNC Thurston Arthritis Research Center), who kept encouraging me to get a little exercise each day so that I could build up my strength. She suggested I try some gentle water exercises and eventually try swimming. I thought, “No way. It’s far too unrealistic for me.” Although I didn’t feel motivated she kept encouraging me, and I eventually decided to do a little bit of exercising. At first I started walking a few steps at a time, with my mom watching to make sure I didn’t fall. My distances increased. I switched from drinking sodas to water. I started eating better and losing more weight.

Where there specific things that motivated you along the way?

Yes, and one of them started with a very intense, vivid dream about two years ago in which I saw myself swimming. When I woke up I started thinking about how I felt ‘called’ to do this, like Dr. Jordan had suggested for so long. My strength had improved enough for me to give it a try, so I started swimming and kept getting a little better. I eventually found a swim coach who helped me begin to swim greater distances. Now I swim 1,000 meters – which I can do in about an hour or less – three times a week. I also walk six miles twice a day. Altogether I have lost more than 200 pounds since I first started exercising and my weight has held steady for years. I have to laugh, because a woman recently challenged me to a race in the pool. She beat me but just barely. But that’s OK, because I’m 54 and she was about 19. I feel good about it. When I tell people my age now, they don’t believe me.

What role did friends and neighbors play in your success?

A key moment was when I met Lexxi, my neighbor’s little Labrador retriever puppy. She helped me tremendously because I offered to walk her during the day when my neighbor was at work. I would look at her and know she depended on me to take her out. Our walks got a little longer from week to week.

So what happens next? What are your goals?

I still have arthritis, chronic pain, and some other health conditions that are difficult to deal with. When I exercise I get tired, and I get sore. I still struggle with pain. But I’m not going to let it stop me. I have as much energy as when I was 20 years old, and I have completely changed my mindset about my health. It’s been over 15 years since I started down this path, and I haven’t let up. I plan to begin swimming competitively, and I’m in training now.

What would you tell others who are facing significant life challenges?

Even if it takes a lot of work, time, and sacrifice, don’t give up. If you just try, take some really little steps, and keep finding ways to make your specific routine work for you, you will keep moving forward. Rely on your faith, your family and friends, and trust your doctors…work with them. Dr. Jordan’s continuous encouragement made a huge difference for me. When she saw my improvements she was extremely excited, and so happy. The fact that she cared so deeply about my health drove me to do whatever I could to improve. That has been a real blessing, and it has made all the difference. I know I won’t ever give up. And neither should you.