Taking steps toward well-being

Walking program builds stamina, relationships

“Walking is a privilege – so much better than sitting in a wheelchair.”

Paul Mello’s statement, simple yet profound, reflects on an activity that most people take for granted: the ability to put one foot in front of the other to get from Point A to Point B.

For Mello, a participant in the Newport Hospital Community Walking Program, walking requires great effort. He uses a cane as he makes circuits of the hospital’s ground floor on a route that passes through the sun-washed Hill Courtyard, where a leader tallies each lap on a whiteboard.

The Middletown man drives his Dodge Durango into the hospital parking lot at 8 a.m., long before the official 11:30 a.m. start of the program that takes place Tuesdays and Thursdays. He gets a head start on the rest of the walkers, and by mid-morning his forehead glistens and his gray T-shirt with a Rhode Island logo is damp with perspiration.

Learn More

The Community Walking program at Newport Hospital meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays year-round (except for a two-week December break) in the Hill Courtyard on the first floor.

Participation is free. For more information, please contact 401-845-1845.

A dirt bike accident in 2007 left Mello with a shattered femur. While being transferred by ambulance from another hospital to Rhode Island Hospital, he suffered a stroke.

“I remember going riding in the morning, but I don’t remember anything after that,” Mello says.

From Rhode Island Hospital, he came to the Vanderbilt Rehabilitation Center at Newport Hospital to continue on his road back.

“When I was in rehab, I saw kids who hadn’t even had a life yet. I thought, at least I had a whole life before this. That’s what gave me the courage to keep going.”

Mello, 48, has been attending the community walking program since it was established in 2010 by Kristin J. Matteson, MS, OT, CHT. The occupational and hand therapist, who has worked at Newport Hospital for 30 years, developed the program while working toward her master’s degree.

“Walking is beneficial in many ways. You can improve your cardiovascular system and your endurance, strengthen your legs and your balance. It’s an overall good fitness program for controlling your high blood pressure, your diabetes, arthritis pain, back pain,” says Matteson.

Paul Mello has been taking advantage of the walking program since it started in 2010. Today, he walks 30 laps inside the hospital twice a week. 

There are about 40 people registered for the program and attendance ranges between 10 and 20 walkers on a given day, depending on the weather and the season. Winter brings people who don’t want to risk walking outdoors when it’s frigid or icy; summer sees the return of snowbirds who have waited out the winter in warmer climes.

Though this is a recreational, not therapeutic, program, there is a safety advantage to walking in the hospital, Matteson said, and there are convenient places to stop for a rest.

Adds Dena King, OT, who is the leader on Thursdays, “For this group of people, it’s not just the exercise but the social environment. They’ve made such great friendships. Some of them meet for lunch once a month.” It gives walkers added motivation to attend when they know others are expecting them, she said.

The program’s participants generally are 50 or older, ranging up to 93, Matteson says, and women make up most of the roster. “My unscientific observation is that I think women tend to do things in groups … and more actively seek fitness activities,” she says.

Attendees are split about 50/50 between community members and former patients. Word of mouth is a strong driver, says Matteson. “People passing through the hospital will say, ‘I’m going to tell my mother about this.’” Some walkers sign up on the recommendation of their therapists or doctors.

Sessions begin with a brief sequence of shoulder rolls, head swivels, side bends, and breathing to get participants ready, and end with a cooldown sequence.

Walkers get their steps in by doing a circle route on the hospital’s first floor that measures 1/10th of a mile. Matteson says lot of people have as their goal to make 10 laps – a mile.

Walkers keep up a good clip as they follow the loop that takes them from the Hill Courtyard through corridors resembling an art gallery, lined with donated paintings, and past the Turner Building elevators. The tempting window displays of the gift shop are next, followed by the friendly folks at the reception desk, and then the homestretch into the courtyard to start another circuit.

Dixie Wood of Middletown, whose husband Robert also attends, has been a member of the group for two years. She likes that she can set her own pace, do what she can, and sit for a bit when she needs to. Wood has built up to walking a mile. She says it’s a motivator knowing that other regulars are expecting her to be there, including her walking buddy Virginia Beltz, who’s 93.

“Ginny B,” as they call her, says she likes the community walking program because she feels more confident walking on the level, with no worries about the summer heat and humidity or winter snow and ice. She said she enjoys meeting congenial people from different backgrounds, and is really committed to attending.

“The most important things are water and walking – those will help you survive,” says Beltz, and she is living proof.

Matteson calls Mello the program’s star: “He started with four laps and now he does 30 laps.”

Like the other walkers, the former mechanic and tow truck driver said he appreciates having a safe environment to walk, the nice people he’s met, and the encouragement he gets.

“It’s inspiring to see someone who’s got physical challenges who doesn’t let it keep him down,” says Lisa Coble, the hospital’s director of volunteer services.  “When you’re not a staff person who works at the bedside in clinical care, it brings it home why we’re here – to take care of people – whether they are patients or members of the community.”