Cardiologist returns to health through ancient exercise

Cardiologist returns to health through ancient exercise
Sonya Lefever, far right, leads a class in tai chi at the Lakeshore Woman’s Club.

If your New Year’s resolution to get in shape means hitting the gym hard – and you’re dreading it – consider an ancient, graceful form of exercise that will keep you coming back for more. 

On a typical day, Dr. Sonya Lefever of Ortega strums a pipa, wards off monkeys, grasps a bird’s tail, and carries a tiger to the mountain, but she doesn’t go far. Her exotic activities occur in the Tao tai chi class she teaches at Lakeshore Woman’s Club. 

Sonya Lefever
Sonya Lefever

As a cardiologist, Lefever’s journey from medical school at Columbia University and Emory University to her internship in Connecticut, residency at Emory in General Cardiology and Interventional Cardiology, and internship at Bethesda Naval Hospital prepared her for the difficulties of caring for those striving for good health. 

After she and her husband, Jeff, a pilot and owner of Sunrise Aviation, came to Jacksonville in 2004, Lefever joined the Diagnostic Cardiology Group in Riverside. By 2007 she was a partner, then the practice was sold to St. Vincent’s Medical Center in 2011. During this time, Lefever was working long hours and taking care of her ailing mother. The effect of being on her feet all day, doing rounds, working in the clinic – all that goes with caring for others – resulted in unbearable pain which led to hip replacement surgery, intensive recuperation and therapy, not once but three times. 

The doctor became the patient and experienced an unusual interruption of her professional life trajectory. In 2012, after her left hip was replaced, she went back to work. She did the same in 2013 after a right hip replacement. In 2014, her sister-in-law, Nancy Lefever, who had experienced the health benefits of tai chi, suggested that Sonya give it a try. “Right away I liked the challenge of it,” said Lefever. “In the first four months I got relief from headaches and shoulder tension.” 

Still feeling unwell and in pain, Lefever discovered after numerous tests that she had an infection in her right hip, which once again required surgery. “I spent three months immobile. I sat in a recliner, used a walker or a wheelchair,” she said. “I went from someone who was used to being very busy to just being at home. Tai chi had to go on the back burner.” 

After months of rehabilitation, but still with little stamina, Lefever hoped to continue practicing medicine, however, there were no openings for a part-time cardiologist. “So, I decided to quit and regroup.” She eased back into tai chi, then started going to longer workshops and intensives. 

“As a physician I wanted to be able to bring this healing to other people. Those with diabetes, high blood pressure, even Parkinson’s, benefit from tai chi. It improves balance, bone strength and general well-being. You concentrate so hard that you can’t think about anything else. Also, for me, it was something else to learn,” said Lefever. 

By January 2018 she had earned her certification as a tai chi instructor. “This is my career path for a while. This is the right time in my life and the right type of exercise. This hour-and-a-half class gives you strength and helps you get your priorities in order,” Lefever said. 

Gara Roberts, a participant in the Lakeshore Woman’s Club tai chi class, said, “Tai chi is the best exercise for my brain as well as my balance. It requires mental awareness as well as physical and carries over into daily life.” Rhonda Hamrick, Tara Mason and Patty Vierling agreed that it “feels like meditation, improves motivation, stamina and anxiety.” 

A health questionnaire conducted in 2016 by the Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA related that 63 percent of caregivers interviewed stated the exercise improved their emotional strength for dealing with stress and increased their strength and energy. 

The practice of gentle movement and deep breathing impacts every aspect of your life: physical, emotional, spiritual and social. While healing herself, Dr. Lefever is fostering good health and healing in others as she guides her students through exercises to move their hands like clouds and strike that tiger on both ears.

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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