Lillian Tsi Stielstra

Lilian Tsi Stielstra was a couch potato. But at age 46, that changed.

Waking on a Saturday in 2010 in her San Francisco home, she recalls feeling tired. She brushed it off as stress from her demanding bank sales job.

Walking up the stairs, she felt “pins and needles” in her left leg. A few minutes later, her left arm had the same sensation. Then the left side of her face felt numb.

“I realized it was a stroke because it was all on one side,” Lilian said.

Her husband, Scott Stielstra, a firefighter and paramedic, bundled Lilian into the car and drove about three blocks to UCSF Medical Center. The American Heart Association recommends people experiencing stroke symptoms, such as face drooping, arm weakness or speech difficulty, call 911 immediately.

Lilian’s stroke came six months after she was diagnosed with high blood pressure, a leading risk factor for strokes and heart attacks. Tests after the stroke showed that she also had high cholesterol and high triglycerides, other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

Being an overweight woman with a stressful, sedentary lifestyle also increased her risk of stroke.

Although Lilian, now 53, has no residual effects from the stroke, her neurologist recommended that she walk for 30 minutes a day.

“My excuse for many years was that I didn’t have time to exercise,” said Lilian, who was interviewed for this article while she walked through Golden Gate Park. She made time.

A neighbor volunteered to walk with her every day at 6 a.m., keeping her accountable. Within two years of her stroke, she was jogging and pledged to run by age 50 the local 7.5-mile Bay to Breakers race — known for runners dressed in costumes. She did, with her then-13-year-old son Peter. She was a tiger mom, complete with a tail.

Now, Lilian runs about 4 miles a day, farther on weekends. She also started swimming two years ago and is trying strength training.

She changed her diet, eating more vegetables and grains, and less sugar. She substitutes Greek yogurt for ice cream.

Lilian also stopped working 15-hour days at her job, where she often was the top salesperson. In 2016, she was No. 7 out of 35 people.

“I just learned to live with that,” Lilian said. “I decided I cannot afford my health to go bad again.”

Those changes led to weight loss: about 25 pounds. They also reduced Lilian’s risk of another stroke.

Lilian is also a dedicated volunteer for the American Heart Association. She was chosen from among hundreds of nominees from across the country for Go Red For Women’s Real Women Class of 2017 and is a member of the organization’s Chinese Cardiac Community Council working in the Greater Bay Area’s Chinese community to raise awareness about maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. Lilian completed her first 25-mile bike ride as part of the CycleNation event in 2017 in Livermore, CA.

“After my stroke, I have been able to make the lifestyle changes necessary to be healthier. Because of the support of my co-workers, I was able to ride 25 miles at CycleNation. In total, my team rode 275 miles while raising funds for a great cause. My company is proud to be actively taking care of the community we live in.

You have to make a conscious choice to change your lifestyle and have cooperation from your family,” Lilian said. “I want to have a healthy heart so I can be alive for my children’s weddings and my potential grandchildren.”

Everyone has a reason to live a longer and healthier life.

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