On a winter day, as snow swirled outside, Tanya Horner placed everything she owned into cardboard boxes. Despite months of working overtime, Horner’s job in Minneapolis had been outsourced and she was moving home to live with her mother and go back to school. In the past year, take-out food and pizza had become her mainstays. She had ballooned to nearly 300 pounds and developed sleep apnea.
Meanwhile, 90 miles away in New Ulm, her mother, Mary Koch, sat on her couch, eating potato chips, mourning the loss of her husband. She had stopped cooking for herself, was 40 pounds overweight and had high cholesterol. Living together again, they realized how unhappy they were with their health. “We got together one day,” Horner remembers, “and said, ‘We’ve got to do something better.’”
One morning Mary Koch went to work as usual at her desk job at the Kraft Foods headquarters just on the edge of town. Instead of going on her coffee break, she walked into one of the conference rooms, where the one local medical center, owned by Allina, had set up stations for free heart-health screens. Koch settled into a cushioned swivel chair next to a table covered with clipboards, wipes and plastic vials for blood. A series of nurses weighed her, checked her blood pressure and took blood to test her cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Fifteen minutes later she was back at work.
Koch had joined 5,200 other people (more than one-third of the town of 14,000) who had voluntarily attended 109 screening sessions at worksites, community centers, churches and recreation centers as part of the first free health screenings for the “Heart of New Ulm” experiment. This initial screening gave Jackie Boucher, vice president of education at the Minnesota Heart Institute Foundation, and her colleagues a 2009 baseline of the town’s health, allowing them to monitor whether or not their efforts could improve health.