by Bri Kilroy • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Two years ago, community volunteer and WYCE radio personality Gabriella De La Vega was working a shift as a part-time Spanish interpreter at Saint Mary’s Hospital when an unexpected wave of dizziness surprised her.
Her concern grew as Spanish and English words began escaping her memory and fatigue weighed in. Suspecting her busy schedule accompanied by little rest and a diet of high sodium snacks and coffee played parts in these bizarre symptoms, De La Vega drove to Spectrum Health Hospital.
When she arrived, De La Vega was rushed to a special unit where she was diagnosed with high blood pressure. Equipped with a heart monitor that she wore for a few days, De La Vega discovered her blood pressure was out of control.
“You can have high blood pressure and not feel anything,” De La Vega, now 46, said. She explained how the lack of noticeable symptoms earned high blood pressure the alternate title of “silent killer.” Her diagnosis heavily shifted her focus to her health. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing okay, but my blood pressure is really high,” she said.
The immediate culprits, a change in diet and a more active lifestyle, were simple enough for the mother of three to figure out; but De La Vega’s most difficult endeavor was working closely with her health provider to find the right balance of medication with her life.
“Finding medications has been the hardest part,” she said, noting the weighing of benefits against side effects. “If something doesn’t feel right, you have to speak up.”
De La Vega also admits that the initial act of putting her health before friends, family and the community she is extraordinarily involved in is an additional challenge. Many cultures associate strength with the absence of seeking medical help when needed, but De La Vega’s emphatic encouragement toward self-care redefines strength and justifies that twinge of selfishness.
“You have to take care of yourself even when it seems selfish,” De La Vega said. “If you’re not healthy, sooner or later your condition will affect what you can provide for others.”
De La Vega finds motivation and support through the American Heart Association and wants to raise health awareness among the Hispanic population by informing people of programs dedicated to improving the health of those in the community, such as Programa Puente (SpectrumHealth.org/Puente).
This February, De La Vega sees Valentine’s Day as “having opportunities to show my family and friends I love them by taking care of myself first.” She’s replaced salty snack bars with vegetables and juice that she blends with her NurtiBullet, purchased a membership at the YMCA where she likes to swim. Additionally, she is thrilled that singing, one of her favorite activities, is a form of stress relief.
De La Vega continues to seek balance with her medications and acknowledges that some days are still hard for her, but when they seem unbearable, she reiterates, “At least I’m doing the best for myself.”
Bri Kilroy is a Grand Valley and AmeriCorps alumna who learned to type through vigorous Mavis Beacon trainings. She also passes as an artist, illustrator and author of this bio.