MANHATTAN — Norma Wesley was sitting at the computer in her East Elmhurst home when half her body went numb. Years ago, Wesley's mother died of a stroke, so she knew the signs.
She picked up the phone and dialed 911. When Wesley was done, she called the women she was supposed to pick up, and informed them she couldn't take them to a church meeting.
“I had a stroke, and I’m on the way to the hospital,” she said calmly.
Almost seven years later, Wesley, now 71, has turned her life around: she’s 45 pounds lighter, eats right, exercises, and now, she’s able to teach others in her church about heart disease.
Wesley and 17 other representatives from parishes in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island graduated Tuesday from a new program at Perelman Heart Institute at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Program.
The program, entitled “HeartSmarts: A Faith-Based Cardiovascular Health Education Program,” works with the parishes to teach about heart disease prevention while using biblical scripture as a teaching tool.
After her stroke, Norma Wesley was confined to a wheelchair. With the help of physical therapy, she was able to move on to a cane. She now walks with a limp. And after Tuesday’s graduation, located at the New York Academy of Medicine, she’s looking forward to imparting the lessons she’s learned throughout her long life.
“That limp to me is my humbleness,” Wesley said. “It reminds me of how far I’ve come from that wheelchair to today.”
The program was the brainchild of Dr. Naa-Solo Tettey, who, after being hired by New York-Presbyterian in July of 2011, was charged with implementing a community health outreach program. She decided that working with churches was a good way to help underserved communities.
“I hadn’t seen any programs that incorporated actual scriptural text, used the Bible as a teaching tool,” Tettey said.
So she took actual lines from the Bible and used them to teach secular health lessons.
“If your body is ‘an instrument of righteousness,’ than you should take care of it,“ she said, referencing Romans 6:19. “For people that are faith-based, that would mean more than a doctor saying ‘eat well and exercise.’"
The recent graduates agree. The Rev. Dr. Rose Ellington Murray, 69, of Harlem’s Trinity AME church, thought she was going to learn basic health lessons. But by adding in biblical lessons, she said, she’s now also able to relate those lessons more easily to her congregation.
“When you cite something or make something relevant through scripture, it becomes more beneficial, and they become more apt to learn,” she said.
Eva Barrett, another graduate, certainly found it easier to learn. The 64-year-old Bedford-Stuyvesant resident is looking forward to bringing the lessons she learned back to her congregation, Crossover Baptist Church.
“It was a beautiful experience,” Barrett said. “Your body is a temple, your body is clean and you should do whatever you can to keep it that way.”