By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
LAS ANIMAS — Tammy Westerman-Pryor woke early on a dark morning in 2006 and couldn’t move her left arm.
She was just 46.
Her husband, the town fire chief and head of transportation for the schools, had already left for the bus barn. Westerman-Pryor had a route to drive too. So, she got up and drove children to school.
She felt disoriented. Her equilibrium was off.
“I think I’m sick,” Westerman-Pryor told her husband as they got off the buses.
Neither noticed right away that the left side of her face was drooping. So she crawled into bed.
By the next morning, Westerman-Pryor was so sick that she finally went to the hospital and learned that she had suffered a stroke on the right side of her brain. There had been no excruciating headache, often a telltale sign of a stroke. Aside from some problems with high blood pressure and carrying some extra weight, Westerman-Pryor was young and relatively healthy.
“Most people are incredulous. They wouldn’t dream it could happen to them,” she said.
Westerman-Pryor now leads LiveWell Bent County and is fighting every day to help her community become healthier. For her, the battle is personal.
During her recovery, she lost 60 pounds. She works to make healthy choices the defaults in her life and those of the people in her community. Every morning, she and her husband walk together to the bus barn. She has fought to keep recess and physical education in the schools here, encourages children in town to walk and ride bikes to school, has tangled with stubborn cafeteria cooks who don’t think students will try healthy foods and is teaching children to grow vegetables and spark changes in their community.
A native of nearby Lamar, Westerman-Pryor has tapped a group of women as allies to press for healthy changes in Las Animas.
“We thrive on being a little crazy,” says Westerman-Pryor. “We’re like the YaYa sisters of health.”
Among their crazy notions: helping the Youth Task Force stage a flash mob to promote their latest trail proposal and shopping for crazy fruit and veggie costumes online to make school events more fun.
She teaches the children her own motto: “Can’t is a four letter word.”
Recovering from the stroke was challenging, and at times, depressing. Westerman-Pryor couldn’t speak at first. She had always enjoyed singing in choirs and lost her voice. And, for years her left foot dragged as she walked. Sometimes, she’d have to think to herself, “Heel, toe, heel, toe, heel, toe,” to get the rhythm just right. The stroke has taught her a valuable lesson for her health work too: take one step at a time and stay positive.
Westerman-Pryor calls the new health movement in Bent County “the most exciting thing to happen to this area since sliced bread,” and “incredibly earth-shattering.”
Lest you doubt that this community is changing, Westerman-Pryor says the evidence is tangible.
“There was an earthquake here,” she said. “We felt it.”