Issue 5 Stories
Feature

Flying High at 90

Local Woman Not Letting Age—or Heart Issues—Slow Her Down

Clara Cohrs knew she wanted to celebrate her 90th birthday with a bang, so she looked to a former U.S. president for inspiration.

“I was trying to think of something improbable for me to do, and I decided I’d like to take my grandkids zip lining,” says the Charlottesville resident, who first tried the sport during a cruise in Costa Rica. “I don’t think my family was surprised. They might have been relieved that I didn’t decide to go skydiving or something.”

In fact, Cohrs got her motivation from former President George H.W. Bush’s 90th birthday skydive in 2014 (he also went skydiving for his 75th, 80th and 85th birthdays).

For Cohrs, though, her feats of daring are a little more impressive, since she’s had two pacemakers implanted at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital over the years. Having a pacemaker hasn’t slowed her down, though, and in fact it’s helped her maintain an active lifestyle by keeping her heart beating at a healthy rate.

Watching for Warning Signs

Many of us ignore bodily signs of trouble, and Cohrs is no different. She now realizes she didn’t pay enough attention to symptoms telling her that something was wrong with her heart. “I passed out once in the bathroom, and I just ignored it and didn’t tell anyone,” she says. “If people are having symptoms of some sort, I would advise them to get checked.”

Luckily, when Cohrs passed out a second time, it happened to be the day before her annual physical in 2006. She told her primary care provider about the incidents, and she was instructed to wear a heart monitor to check for abnormalities. As it turned out, Cohrs’ heart was stopping for as much as 8 seconds at a time, and she needed a pacemaker to restore her heart’s normal rhythm. She got the device just in time to go on one of her beloved cruises with her husband, Werner. “I had the pacemaker put in on a Monday, and I left for the cruise that Saturday.” she says. Cohrs received a replacement device in 2015.

Implanting a pacemaker is a simple procedure that doesn’t involve open-heart surgery. The surgeon makes a small incision in the chest and slips in the device, and a wire called a lead is guided through a vein to the heart. For most pacemaker implants, patients receive medication to make them sleepy and comfortable, or a local anesthetic to numb the area. “It’s no big deal having them put in,” Cohrs says. “It was easier than going to the dentist, and it worked out very well.”

While the pacemaker has been helping to regulate Cohrs’ heartbeat since 2006, she doesn’t even notice that it’s there. “I can never feel it at all,” she notes.

The pacemaker ensures that her heart rate doesn’t get too slow, and it can increase her heart rate when she’s active, which can give her more energy and help her feel better, according to Elizabeth “Ellie” Yeatts, M.Ed., CCDS, who cares for Cohrs at the Heart Device Clinic at Sentara Martha Jefferson. The clinic, which sees more than 1,300 patients annually, is staffed by a highly trained team that monitors and analyzes data from implanted cardiac devices like pacemakers, defibrillators and heart-failure devices.

To make sure her pacemaker is working properly, Cohrs gets yearly checkups at the clinic and receives remote device checks every three months via telephone, during which the staff checks both the pacemaker’s battery and her heart rhythm.

Cohrs is happy she chose Sentara Martha Jefferson for her heart care. “I can’t say enough good things about Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital,” she says. “Both the facility and the people there are out of this world. Everybody is so helpful. Everything is just perfect.”

Staying Healthy and Active

These days, Cohrs is feeling great—great enough to go zip lining, in fact. “It helps to have good genes, good luck and the grace of God,” she admits, noting that she’s been physically active all of her life, enjoying swimming, boating, skiing, ice skating and other activities in her younger years. “I’ve just been very, very fortunate that I’ve been able to stay active.”

She walks 1.5 miles every day in her Branchlands community and uses a Fitbit to track her steps. Cohrs also attends Silver Sneakers exercise classes for seniors three times a week. Walking, she says, is her meditation, and the physical activity has helped her maintain her overall health. “I discovered that for me, exercise takes the place of lots of different pills, like antidepressants and laxatives,” she adds.

Werner, 93, a retired electrical engineer at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., recently had hip revision surgery and isn’t able to get around as well, so for Clara it’s all the more important to stay healthy, in order to take care of him. “I have to maintain my own strength as much as possible,” she says, noting that the couple does get out three days a week for dinners at Applebee’s. 

Sailing Through the Trees

Cohrs’ grandchildren were delighted to share their special day of zip lining with their grandmother this past July at Virginia Canopy Tours near Luray, and they’re ready to go again. “I wasn’t surprised at all that she wanted to go zip lining,” says her grandson, Jeffrey Balnave. “Grandma Cohrs has always been very active and adventurous. I’m a lucky grandson.”

Cohrs and her grandchildren soared 90 feet in the air through the forest at 30 miles an hour, looking at beautiful views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. Overall they completed eight different zip lines, walked across two bridges and enjoyed a nature walk, and they finished up by rappelling down a giant tree. “The whole adventure took about three hours. Grandma did amazing!” says Balnave.

“It was fabulous!” agrees her granddaughter, Amanda Gendreau. “We all had a great time together. It was so nice for the grandkids to spend time with my grandmother—just us. We all agreed that we need to do something like this again for Grandma’s 95th birthday, or maybe even every year!”

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