She Walks the Walk: A Lifelong Rehabilitation

Related Services

Preventive Cardiology


Help Your Heart

Go Red Heart CheckUp

Judy Ettinger walks nearly 60 miles per week.Earlier this year, Judy Ettinger walked a half-marathon and ranked among the top walkers in her class.


It was quite an accomplishment, considering that in 1996 she was blindsided by a cardiac incident that led to bypass surgery and five damaged vessels.
"I’ve always worked out. I was as healthy as could be until that episode," Ettinger said.


Share This Story

The episode occurred one night while Ettinger was watching the news. "It seemed as though an elephant was sitting on my chest," she said.


Ettinger was taken to UW Hospital, where she was treated by a heart surgeon for spontaneous dissection of the coronary artery. The condition occurs because of a connective tissue disorder that causes the lining of the artery to break down and eventually collapse. Due to the rapid and spontaneous collapse of her vessels, Ettinger had to have five bypass grafts inserted using veins from her legs to restore blood flow to the heart.


"I don’t think that I would have survived had I not been near a research hospital like UW Hospital," Ettinger said. "I don’t think other hospitals would have known what to do."


Ettinger went through three months of cardiac rehabilitation therapy at the UW Preventive Cardiology Clinic after the episode, but decided early on that the end of her therapy wouldn't be the end of healing.


"I like to be the best I can be," she said. "I never thought of it as an ending. I knew that I wanted to get back to working out the way I did."


Ettinger successfully completed the initial three months of cardiac rehabilitation following surgery and continues to follow-up regularly with Vonda Shaw, the Preventive Cardiology clinic manager whom she's worked with since 1996.


"She’s a model patient," Shaw said. "She has a very healthy eating plan, exercises almost every day and has a positive outlook on life."


Ettinger’s initial fitness goals following surgery weren't easy to reach. The incident left her feeling weak and it took nearly a year for Ettinger to begin to feel normal again.


"Some days all I could do was brush my teeth," she said. "But the team at UW Health was very specific about how to build up and be patient. They provided me with all of the rationale about the decisions they were making, which was very helpful."


Ettinger started with small tasks and eventually worked her way up to walking nearly 60 miles each week.


"I love exercising. It’s my favorite part of the day," said Ettinger, who now walks eight miles a day and sometimes up to 10 miles per day before a big race.


She learned a few years ago that walkers could participate in running races.


"Once I discovered that, I decided to race in Madison events," Ettinger said. "In 2009, my daughter and I walked some races where we were the only walkers, but this year the Madison Marathon allowed walkers to race and I was able to compete at a high level."


Ettinger enjoys walking with her children, as they are a great source of motivation. Her children were in their teens and 20s when her cardiac episode occurred and she felt that it really affected them.


"I don’t want to put them through that again," she said.


Ettinger also enjoys walking with another family member: Her dog. Ettinger recommends that if cardiac patients are looking for motivation to get out and walk they should consider getting a dog or simply taking a neighborhood dog on a walk.


"Dogs give you a mission and a partner when walking," she said.


Ettinger continues to improve and succeed in her fitness goals, but remembers feeling discouraged.  For example, she still cannot climb mountains like she used to or go on extended trips outside the country. To keep spirits high, she recommends writing down each day's accomplishments.


"Keep a diary - it will help you realize how much you’ve accomplished," Ettinger said. "It can be a long process and it can be painful, but you’ll be able to look back and say, ‘wow, look how far I’ve come.' "


Fourteen years after her cardiac episode, she continues to improve her health and has found something that she truly enjoys and benefits her health.


"I’m always up for a challenge," Ettinger said. "I love walking. Sometimes I feel like I can walk forever."