- Success Stories -

Bravery In Action

How three people conquered physical and emotional pain to regain their former fitness.

BUNS OF STEEL! SIX-PACK ABS! RIPPED PECS! SLIMMER THIGHS! So much of what we see and hear about the benefits of fitness emphasizes the superficial. And while there’s no question that looking good is often synonymous with feeling good, many of us forget that there’s much more to a healthy lifestyle than bigger muscles or a smaller dress size.

We forget that keeping our bodies functioning at capacity makes everyday tasks more manageable, both physically and psychologically.

This is never more apparent than it is after an accident or injury. Suddenly, things we normally take for granted, whether bike riding or washing a load of laundry or just getting out of bed, assume all the characteristics of an uphill battle – no less intimidating or demanding than a marathon for a beginning runner.

On the following pages you will meet three inspirational individuals who came face to face with a debilitating physical or psychological roadblock and responded by committing (or recommitting) themselves to fitness routines that were as challenging as they were essential – individuals who prove that fitness is anything but skin deep.

Robin Haworth, 48

Predicament: Grief over her mother’s death made her revert to bad eating habits; ended up weighing 270 pounds

Obstacle: Has always sought emotional comfort by eating

How She Overcame: Fed up with her weight and how she was viewed by others, hired a personal trainer for support and encouragement

Bravery in Action: Lost 125 pounds and no longer uses food to soothe life’s ups and downs

Weight has always been a bitter challenge for Robin Haworth. “I’ll never forget being teased on the playground as a little kid for being fat,” she remembers. “I was always the last person chosen for a team, the last to be invited into a game.”

Those cruel taunts left her with deep emotional scars that never completely healed. “In junior high, someone asked me if I had stretch marks because I was so fat. You keep those kinds of comments with you as the years go by – and keep adding to them with every new insult.” By high school, Haworth had ballooned to 270 pounds. She tried every fad diet in the bookstore but, like many Americans, ultimately gained back all she had lost and more. In time, she could no longer ignore the source of her weight problem: When faced with life’s challenges, Haworth found solace in the refrigerator. She was simply using food to soothe her emotional aches and pains.

After graduating from high school, Haworth gathered the strength to confront her emotions, dropped 75 pounds and discovered she could find happiness without the use of a knife and fork. Her new life was cut short when her mother succumbed to uterine cancer – a tragedy that triggered a completely new level of emotional despair. “I never thought I’d be below 200 pounds, but I had gotten there,” she says. “Yet with my mom gone, things just weren’t the same. I had neither the support I needed nor the enthusiasm to keep at it. I ended up gaining it all back.”

For the next two decades, Haworth’s weight mirrored her emotional state. If things went well, the numbers on the scale spun down. When things got tough, she paid a hefty price. “Eating was the only way to stop the fear, the sadness, and the loneliness, not to mention feelings of not being wanted. It was always there, always accessible.

“When you’re heavy, people don’t look you in the eye,” she adds. “They feel sorry for you or they judge you because they think you can’t control what you eat.” That same attitude affects every area of life, says Haworth, from work to friendships. How can you be trusted, goes the thinking, if you don’t have control over your own body?

Enough was enough. Finally, Haworth decided she would have to take control of her health. She joined a fitness center in Shelby Township, Mich., and hired a personal trainer named Matt Wehner, who gave her the incentive to work hard, celebrate incremental success and, for the first time, feel that anything was possible. “He never once told me I couldn’t do this. Other people would have told me I would fail, but he said, ‘It’s all up to you. I have no doubt you can do it.'”

They focused on four areas: strength training (to encourage weight loss), cardio (to lower her heart rate and high blood pressure), nutrition education (to help her make smarter food choices), and flexibility (to help prevent injuries and increase mobility). Given her emotions, which were still on a rollercoaster ride, the progress was slow going at first. “There were times when I would come in so depressed that Matt didn’t know quite how to help me,” she says. “But instead of giving up on me, he just pushed me harder.”

After a few months of working out six days a week – two with Wehner, the rest on her own – the clouds began to clear. Haworth’s psyche improved so dramatically in those first six months, in fact, that her therapist called Wehner to ask what his secret was. It was simple: Having someone to be accountable to made all the difference. “Matthew saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself,” Haworth explains.

Two years later, Haworth’s strong, flexible body weighs a healthy 145 pounds and, even more important, her outlook on life has lightened. “My real personality has come out. I’m more self-confident. My attitude is better. I walk with my head up.”

She no longer lets life’s challenges throw her off course – no matter how big or small. Since turning things around at the gym, in fact, she’s had a minor car accident, foot surgery, a sprained ankle and a case of shingles – problems that are no different than those many face from day to day but that would have had the old Robin Haworth making a beeline to the refrigerator. “When I was younger, eating was a way to take away bad things: loneliness, anger, depression. Now I take it out on a treadmill.

“I’m just a regular person, nothing special,” she concludes. “I just finally got tired of people looking down at me.”

Shared Wisdom: Haworth says that, for her, finding the right kind of support was crucial. “Find someone to be accountable to,” she says. “It can be a workout buddy, sister, next-door neighbor, whomever. You can always talk yourself out of going to the gym, so you need to find and connect with someone who will tell you to get your butt up and go.”

Brian Shaughnessy, 36

Predicament: Survived a near-fatal car accident, but awoke from his coma facing life-changing injuries

Obstacle: Brain swelling, blunt renal trauma, spinal-cord contusion, fractured elbow

How He Overcame: Used his experience as a physical therapist to integrate specific exercises and an array of complementary treatments to gather strength and reclaim mobility

Bravery in Action: He spent more than a year working to get back his former health and now has returned to 90 percent of his previous fitness level

Brian Shaughnessy has no memory of the evening 12 years ago when a drunk driver struck him. One minute, he was on the last stretch of a six-mile run along the A1A Coastal Highway near Delray Beach, Fla., training for an upcoming biathlon. The next, the 25-year-old found himself staring at a hospital ceiling, where he had lain in a coma for 24 hours. His injuries were extensive. There was brain swelling, a spinal-cord contusion, a fractured elbow and a severe road rash that covered his face, shoulders, knees and hands. He had also suffered blunt renal trauma that reduced his kidneys’ function to just 25 percent. “No one thought I would live,” he says.

Before the accident, Shaughnessy, a physical therapist, had completed five triathlons in the course of two years. “As a PT, you need to practice what you preach,” he says. “I was really in shape for that reason, but more than that, I just enjoyed being active.”

Now he was immobile, his body as fragile as a shattered windshield. He returned home to recuperate with the help of a home nurse. “At this point, I didn’t care about triathlons,” Shaughnessy remembers. “I just wanted to get back to walking again and get my life in order.” It would be a long process. Everything hurt and the exercises he could safely perform were severely limited. He couldn’t lift more than 5 pounds for fear of exacerbating the bleeding and swelling in his kidneys. He had paresthesia (numbness and tingling) in his legs, which ruled out any lower-body work, and he couldn’t use his right arm, because of the elbow fracture and a torn rotator cuff.

With those seemingly insurmountable barriers in front of him, however, Shaughnessy had several things going for him. For starters, he constantly looked forward to what he fully believed would be healthier days. “I knew things would take time, but I also knew that this accident wasn’t going to hold me down,” he says. “I’d been in really good shape. Now I just needed to do what I could to get better.” His training as a PT also was a blessing in disguise.

He practiced the same exercises he’d used on patients: isometric movements to increase his muscle tone, and range of motion exercises to expand the use of his joints.

He also consulted with other experts to help with specific areas of recovery. Visits to various chiropractors and cranial-sacral specialists improved alignment and soothed his bruised spine. Reiki practitioners helped rebalance his energy. He also used traction, in the hopes it would help rebalance his neurological system, mitigating symptoms like the tingling in his legs when he flexed his neck. While none of these therapies provided a quick fix, they did offer Shaughnessy a measure of comfort. “I felt like I was doing something: I knew I was being proactive about getting better.”

In two months’ time he could go outside for a short walk and lift 20 pounds. High blood pressure because of kidney damage was still cause for concern, though. A friend suggested yoga as a way to further his healing process, and Shaughnessy began taking two daily sessions of Bikram Yoga, a popular style of the ancient art where you sweat through a series of 26 postures in a 105-degree room. (In theory, the intense heat helps make muscles and ligaments more flexible.) He saw astonishing results after just eight weeks. “My blood pressure stabilized and the paresthesia was gone, probably from the constant stretching. The classes would almost kill me; I’d be so sore afterward, but I always left the studio walking on air.” With this intensive period of yoga therapy, Shaughnessy’s mobility, particularly in his arms, improved immeasurably.

It took nearly 15 months for Shaughnessy to even consider resuming the semblance of a normal life. He says his recovery has been slow, but his progress consistent, like filling a glass of water with an eyedropper. Now 36, he regularly bikes five miles each way to take classes at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine. He works out with free weights, does Pilates and still regularly rolls out the yoga mat.

Operating at about 90 percent of his pre-accident fitness level, Shaughnessy believes that, once he has more time to exercise, he will eventually exceed his former athletic achievements. Instead of dwelling on the pain and inconvenience of this life detour, Brian Shaughnessy assessed his situation and focused on what he could do to get back on track.

He offers this same advice for others facing a similar setback. “I think when you’re going through something like that, the best approach is to never look back. You just have to carry on,” he says. “Don’t let it stop you. I think of it in terms of a saying I once read: ‘Lest direction be lost, motion must be maintained.'”

Shared Wisdom: Shaughnessy found that his state of mind played a pivotal role in his recovery. “If you don’t believe you can recuperate, then every effort in the world won’t make a difference,” he insists. Early on in the healing process, he read 30 books about spiritual awakening, philosophy and the mind-body connection. “It was very nurturing. It got me thinking about the big picture and helped me deal with the actual process of healing.”

Nancy May, 32

Predicament: Suffers from relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis

Obstacle: Severe physical limitations, including vision problems, hand numbness and loss of strength

How She Overcame: Slow and steady workouts

Bravery in Action: She went from relying on a wheelchair to completing a 5K run

Ten years ago, Nancy May, 24, awoke one morning and couldn’t see out of her right eye. The emergency-room doctors discovered she had optic neuritis, which May’s mother, a microbiologist, knew to be a common symptom of multiple sclerosis, or MS. Over the next six months, other symptoms of MS surfaced: tingling sensations in the hands and legs, a loss of balance, nausea. When an MRI revealed damaging white spots on her brain, doctors confirmed the feared diagnosis.

An inflammatory disease that affects the central nervous system, MS manifests in different forms that vary in severity and prognosis. Like many of the 400,000 people living with MS, May was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, which meant that her various physical problems would come and go without warning. Her doctors told her to expect balance problems, vision changes (vertigo, blurred and double vision), and hand numbness, which would make activities like writing, typing or painting difficult.

At the time May was an active young woman who enjoyed competitive swimming, volleyball, soccer and curling. Now she faced a chronic condition that could incapacitate her completely. “The doctors told me that within 10 years I’d use a wheelchair or maybe a cane, if I was lucky,” she says.

Navigating the unpredictability of the disease posed a constant challenge. “One day I’d have numbness in my right hand, the next day my left,” she says. “I’d have loss of core strength, then balance problems, then nausea. Things would go, then come back. I never knew what to expect.”

Betaseron, an injectable medication, improved her functions to near-normal levels. She kept fit by walking and swimming at the YMCA and “just tried to live my life.” The effects of MS drugs can decrease in time, however, as the body develops a resistance. Eight years after her first dose of Betaseron, May’s luck ran out. On a business trip to Pennsylvania, she suddenly developed nystagmus, an MS-related condition where the eyes move as if in REM sleep, despite the person being awake. Additional symptoms followed, including compromised function in every appendage, plus problems with vision, balance, standing and walking.

Steroids helped her regain strength, but they also triggered weight gain, sleeplessness and other side effects. She was stuck in a wheelchair, just as predicted, and her parents had to provide care. “I hit rock bottom at that point,” May says. “I decided right then that I would do whatever I could to maintain my level of ability. I was dealt these cards and I was going to play the hand I got.”

With this new resolve – and thanks in large part to a new medication that helped her walk again – she visited a fitness center near her home in Farmington Hills, Mich., near Detroit. With a personal trainer at her side, she literally began taking small steps. “I started off on the treadmill and would walk just 1.5 miles an hour, holding onto the bar for dear life,” she recalls. “I’d only last about 10 minutes.” May stayed at this level for a few weeks, exhausted by the effort. She gradually began to incorporate basic gym exercises, which were modified to accommodate her limitations. Rather than try a classic standing lat pull, for instance, she did a sitting version, which didn’t overtax her sense of balance. Instead of performing walking lunges with 25-pound weights, she did them standing, with a bar in front of her for support. May’s trainer also encouraged her to use tools like balance boards and stability balls, to foster her equilibrium.

“I knew that if I could just increase strength, stamina, flexibility and balance, I could do more in life,” she says. “I wanted to be able to run in the yard and play soccer with my nephew – not play from a wheelchair. I wanted to still travel for my job, go for long walks with my fiancé and have the energy to plan our wedding.”

Just two years into her fitness program, May has made remarkable progress. Medication continues to keep her disease in check, while her resolve to work out keeps her in shape. “When May came to me two years ago, her strength was so poor, I couldn’t even conduct our standard strength test,” recalls her trainer, Melissa LeValley. “Now she can pretty much do anything in the gym – machines, squats, free weights, anything. And whereas she used to set the treadmill at its lowest setting, she now runs on it.”

In fact, finding her legs again has recently provided May with one of her most satisfying personal victories. A year ago, LeValley proposed to May the idea of running a 5K race. May was game, and for several months she trained on the treadmill to increase her stamina. Despite pain from an alignment problem in her back, she reached the finish line. “Running that race was such a big accomplishment for me,” she says, clearly still basking in the excitement. Her enthusiasm has prompted her to set even bigger goals. She’s currently gearing up for a 10K race and perhaps even a half-marathon.

May knows her MS will forever remain a factor in everything she attempts, whether it’s going to work, hitting the treadmill or just going for a long walk. Instead of dreading the disease, though, she uses it as inspirational fuel. “Some people, knowing that I have MS and I’m training for a race, will ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I just tell them, ‘Because I can.'”

Shared Wisdom: For May, setting small goals was the key to a successful workout routine. For example, one benchmark was to establish a certain number of pushups. Another was to target a walking distance. “When the goals are difficult, I have to have a strong attitude,” she says. “But whether basic or more challenging, working out helps me do more in my life.”


Jennifer Barrett is editor of The Herb Quarterly. She lives in Connecticut.

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