Her heart stopped beating at 27 years-old.

Denise Solters, now 70, stares at the ocean at Cayucos State Beach with a level of appreciation unmatched by many. Her service dog, Bud, barks for her to throw a stick.

“I didn’t like the attention. I didn’t like being looked at,” Solters says. “I just wanted to be invisible.”

When Denise went into cardiac arrest, she weighed 97 pounds. An overdose on diuretic pills had reduced the volume of her heart until it stopped pumping.

After two shocks from the defibrillator and a handful of luck, she was revived. She spent the next 18 days of her life in a coma. The coma caused significant damage to her cerebellum and she became disabled with affected speech and balance. She stayed at Loma Linda Hospital for almost a year learning to walk and talk again — as well as recover from a nasty bout of pneumonia.

“Imagine you’re 20 years-old, and in only 7 years, you’ll be disabled,” she said.

When she was 47 years-old, Solters graduated from Cal Poly cum laude with a degree in child development.

“I only took 2 to 3 classes so I’d have time for my walks, but I did it,” Solters said. “I did it with my brain injury. I always wanted to make my mom proud. She always told me to get my education and not depend on a man.”

Her near-death experience inspired her to become an advocate for mental health and body positivity. During her rigorous schooling, she began educating students in nutrition classes at Cal Poly about the dangers of eating disorders. In a Human Sexuality class, she talked about intimacy while having a disability. In elementary school auditoriums, she taught young students about her service dogs.

Solters, a devout Catholic, credits her recovery from her eating disorder to her faith and her service dogs. Her service dogs, therefore, quickly became her life purpose. Solters now spends substantial time in the pool at the Recreation Center doing physical therapy. Her dog Bud paces alongside the pool excitedly as she swims.

She has trained two dogs of her own — Bud and Jetta — and has published two books, “Jetta’s Journey” and “Lessons from Jetta,” which focus on the impact her late dog, Jetta, had on her life.

“She touched me, and made me be nicer to people,” Solters said. “She made me think about other people more than myself. When I had her, it gave me more of a mission in life.”

Solters’ eating disorder has affected her since she was a young girl. She spent a significant portion of her life wearing over-sized clothing to keep her figure from being visible.

At least 30 million people of all genders and ages suffer from an eating disorder in the United States. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder.

To put this into context, “In 2016 there were 21,306 (Fall 2016). If six percent of that population meet criteria for an eating disorder then that means about 1,278 students on this campus are walking around with an eating disorder,” according to a fact sheet provided by Campus Health and Wellbeing. “In a 2016 Healthy Minds study, they found that six percent of the Cal Poly population met criteria for an eating disorder.”

Solters said one of the worst parts about the disorder was the constant feeling of denial and shame.

“There’s so much denial,” she said. “I denied until I was in a coma. I denied until I was in the coma and they found my pills. My husband broke several of my scales. It is such a hard thing to get over.”

If she were to meet someone struggling with this disorder, Solters said she would want to hug them.

“I feel like I’d say to them, ‘You’re beautiful the way that you are,’” she said. “You don’t have to put yourself through the pain anymore. But you have to let go of your issues and you have to let go of yourself. It’s all control.’”

Bud barks again and she tells him to start digging. He begins panting and shoveling sand behind him at rapid speed as she continues to talk. She looks out at the ocean one more time. 

“My life was hard, but it’s wonderful and I would never trade it, because I got to know Bud and Jetta and touch people’s hearts.”

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