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Lose to Win in 2009 Pagosa Fitness Challenge

Thoughts of a local fitness competition might conjure up images of hard-bodied men and women dressed in skimpy clothes, putting themselves through a series of workouts to test their stamina. But the Pagosa Springs EMT Association has put together a fitness challenge that is not only accessible to everyone in the community, hard-bodied or not, but also a fun event that will appeal to both individuals and groups.

An Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) is an emergency responder trained to provide emergency medical services to the critically ill and injured. The modern EMT does more than just drive an ambulance. They make many types of calls including trauma and responding to such medical emergencies as heart attacks, stroke, childbirth and hazardous materials exposure. The mission of the Upper San Juan Emergency Medical Technician Association is “to provide support and encouragement to EMTs serving under the Upper San Juan Health Services District. The association strives to help set the highest standards in patient care, EMT skills and EMS education, and to promote community support and appreciation of EMS and association members.”

One of the interesting things about being an EMT in a small town is that the people who offer their support and drive patients to the emergency room on any given day or night are also community members who know some of the people to whom they provide their services.

According to Brad Cochennet, chief executive officer of Pagosa Mountain Hospital, “The EMTs bring in people with cardiac arrest, and many die. Some of these deaths could have been prevented.” While Brad notes that the EMTs do an amazing job stabilizing the patients and providing care, both the hospital and the EMTs had no participation before that emergency event took place, and had no role with prevention. The Emergency Medical Technician would wait for a call on the radio to give their services to the patient. That is, until now.

Molly Osmera is president of the Pagosa Springs EMT Association and has been in charge of their fund-raisers for the last few years. With a goal to top last October’s “Medical Mayhem” costume ball, Molly and the EMT Association decided to do some front-end intervention with the community and turn it into a contest. After speaking with Brad at Pagosa Mountain Hospital about the hospital’s new grant that offers free and reduced-cost services aimed at prevention, the EMTs decided to create a fitness challenge that would allow participants to have a starting baseline for their fitness, then spend three months trying to improve on that mark with the help of services from both the hospital and the EMTs.

Pagosa Mountain Hospital recently received funding to offer a plethora of preventative care programs to residents, for little or no cost. The two-year grant will begin during the hospital’s first Early Detection Week, which takes place Monday, Sept. 21 through Saturday, Sept. 26. During that week, from 8 to 11 a.m. each day, residents can take advantage of a free cardiac screening including blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol tests. Whether you always wondered what your cholesterol level was, or you’ve had a recent test and want to see if it has changed, visitors can take advantage of the free service. Early Detection Week will also offer $6 prostate blood tests, $25 seasonal flu shots, and several free workshops.

Dr. Jim Pruitt and Dr. Gary Fine will host a free question and answer session for the public on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 5:30 p.m. Participants can ask questions about health-related issues. Another free workshop will be held on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 22-23, where pharmacists will be on hand to answer any questions about medications. Other free sessions include diabetic education, a lecture on cardiovascular disease and breast cancer awareness. At the free breast cancer workshop, women will be able to use a specialized mannequin to learn how to detect lumps.

The Early Detection Week will be set up like a health fair, with different stations in the Pagosa Mountain Clinic. During the event, one of the stations will be a sign-up for the Pagosa Fitness Challenge. Cost to enter the event is just $25 per person, plus a $25 fee for each team. Participants can sign up as individuals or join a team of 2 to 5 people. Team members must be registered as individuals as well. Winners will be awarded a $500 cash prize in each of three categories: winning female, winning male and winning group. Winners will be determined by the percent of body weight lost during the three month competition period. By using a percentage of body weight lost, a small woman losing 10 pounds can compete against a larger woman who sheds 20 pounds. The goal of the challenge for the EMTs is to motivate participants to not only lose weight, but to create a healthy lifestyle that they can continue after the competition ends.

“Studies have shown that if you do something consecutively for 30 days, it will become a habit,” Molly explains.

“And we will provide the tools for participants to make good habits happen,” adds Connie Cook, another EMT who is jumping wholeheartedly into making the challenge happen. “We want to not only improve community awareness for the free programs offered by the Pagosa Mountain Clinic, but empower people and give them a choice in their own destiny.”

Brad Cochennet says, “The Emergency Room door is the most expensive door in the hospital. Early detection is the least expensive door. The more we can get people to use the prevention door, the fewer we’ll have to see through the emergency room.”

The EMTs will use the fitness challenge to promote wellness activities and keep the public as far away from the emergency room as possible, but they note that prevention is the hardest thing to motivate people to do.

An EMT for several years, Larry Escude also voiced his frustration at bringing community members to the hospital and seeing many of them die from heart attacks due to heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States according to the CDC. The good news is that the leading cause of death can be prevented 80 percent of the time, and the EMTs hope to do their part to help educate participants on preventative measures.

The Challenge will begin with a weigh-in at any time during the hospital’s Early Detection Week hours. Participants can take advantage of any of the activities offered at the clinic, then visit the EMT station to complete a registration form, choose a name for their team (if they are on one), and pick a T-shirt size.

“Hopefully the shirt will be too big by the time they’re done,” Connie adds with a grin. After that, participants can expect to receive weekly e-mails from EMT associates that will offer menu and fitness ideas, as well as notifications for coupons and discounts offered exclusively to fitness challenge members. The support from local business has been extraordinary, with Wells Fargo Bank, Citizens Bank, The Springs Resort and JJ’s Riverwalk Restaurant jumping in as main sponsors. Several other businesses have offered discount services for aerobics classes, chiropractic services, and even food discounts for healthy meals. In addition, fitness challenge members can take part in an online discussion forum where they can ask health and fitness related questions pertaining to the challenge, and have them answered by experts.

The challenge ends with a final weigh-in Dec. 20 and 21. An awards ceremony will be held after the New Year in conjunction with a second Pagosa Mountain Hospital Early Detection Week where participants can complete another blood screen to see how their numbers have improved after three months of developing healthy habits.

By hosting a fund-raiser that will make community members healthier, the EMTs aim to reduce the number of people they see in their ambulances due to illness that could have been prevented. Proceeds from the fund-raiser will go directly to the EMT Association for continuing education and equipment.

Kelly Johnson, administrative coordinator at Pagosa Mountain Hospital, as well as a certified personal trainer and aerobics instructor, recalls her battle to lose weight after her daughter was born. “I was 65 pounds heavier,” she says, “and I would have loved the fitness challenge to help me figure out what to do.”

When Kelly was trying to lose weight, she had no idea whether to go with a high-carb or low-carb diet, or what kind of food to eat. “Is that bag of chips I’m craving okay for a snack?” she remembers asking herself.

Participants in the challenge will have three months of access to a panel of trained professionals that can answer their questions in the online forum, and the 16 members of the EMT Association hope that large numbers of the community will take part in the event.

“The challenge is not just for people that need to lose weight,” Cook concludes, “It can be about exercising, getting fit and using a network of support to develop healthy personal habits during those three months.”

The challenge will be a great way for the community to stay healthy and fit not only through the holiday season, but long past the end of the competition and into the new year.

For more information about the event, or to offer discount services to participants, contact coordinator Molly Osmera at, or visit