True Commitment: Kelli Merritt’s Success Story

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Shortly after being diagnosed with MS, Kelli Merritt completed a 5K to prove the disease wouldn’t rule her life.

An average person can run five kilometers in about 45 minutes or walk it in 60. Kelli Merritt is not your average person. This year, the 33-year-old participated in her first 5K. She pushed her walker over the finish line after two hours and six minutes — a stunning achievement considering that just months before, she was confined to a hospital bed unable to lift her right leg.

Merritt was one of 40,000 people nationwide to take part in Commitment Day, an annual event sponsored by Life Time. On Jan. 1 in more than 30 cities, participants make a public pledge to live a healthier life; many commit to lose weight, stay active, or improve eating habits.

For Merritt, the event offered a chance to come to grips with her recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. “It was my way of taking hold of my MS,” she explains. “If I could tackle this 5K, I could tackle anything that MS could do to me. I could prove that I may have MS, but it doesn’t have me.”

A Life Interrupted

Merritt grew up in the town of Porter, Texas, near Houston, where she lived the active life of a typical country kid. She raised lambs and pigs, played softball, and thought nothing of slinging 50-pound bags of animal feed.

Like many farm kids, she left home to earn a degree in animal science. But when her mother developed cancer, the course of Merritt’s life changed. “Massage was one of the only things that helped alleviate her pain,” she says of her mother. Intrigued, Merritt shifted her studies to massage, eventually specializing in sports massage and working at Life Time.

It was around this time that the first signs of MS emerged. “I was having some issues — mainly tingling and stiffness in my hands,” she recalls. The disease is notoriously difficult to detect in its early stages, however, and an initial visit to the doctor ruled it out. So Merritt “really didn’t think any more about it.”

In spring 2012, her condition worsened. She had moved to Minnesota to be with her partner, Penney. “I couldn’t flex my foot. My muscles were jerking around. I kept tripping. I walked like Frankenstein’s monster.”

On May 25, 2012, Penney took Merritt to the emergency room. An MRI showed lesions on her brain. “At that moment, my whole world crumbled,” she says. “Panic and anxiety set in.” Within minutes, she was headed to Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s Neuroscience Institute. “By that point, I couldn’t lift my right leg off the bed. I had no muscle control and severe pain. Something as simple as taking my sock off caused extreme pain.”

Doctors confirmed the MS diagnosis. “I was scared and I was angry,” Merritt remembers. “I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.”

Learning to Walk Again

Before her diagnosis, Merritt, like most of us, had little understanding of MS. She learned quickly. Today, she likens it to faulty wiring: Our brains and spinal cords are encased in myelin sheaths — much like the plastic that coats household wires. MS damages these sheaths, and the resulting scar tissue interrupts signals from our brains to our muscles. In Merritt’s case, a two-millimeter lesion on her spinal cord rendered her incapable of walking.

There is no known cause of the disease. There is no known cure, either.

In the early days after her diagnosis, Merritt worked on basic skills she once took for granted. “I had to learn to walk again,” she says. “Getting dressed and tying my shoes — I literally felt like I had run a marathon.” For someone with MS, managing such skills is often a question of managing energy. “It takes five times as much energy just to run upstairs,” Merritt explains.

The emotional learning was equally exhausting. Anger, fear, and anxiety were constants. “I even lashed out at Penney,” says Merritt. “I was worried I would be wheelchair bound. What kind of a life could we have together?” Merritt credits support from Penney and hospital staff — as well as anti-anxiety medication — for helping her replace despair with determination.

After three months of rehab, Merritt returned to work with a renewed sense of purpose. “If anything, I’m more in tune than ever about people’s bodies and what massage can do for them.”

When the first Commitment Day was announced, Merritt’s manager encouraged everyone on staff to participate in some way. “Honestly, I laughed at her. I thought she was crazy. I couldn’t even walk.”

The more Merritt thought about it, though, the more inspired she became. She likens MS to a monster in the closet — the less you know, the more you imagine, and the worse it seems. Commitment Day felt like turning on a light to expose the monster: “This is what you are; this is what you cause; this is what you can do to me and what you can’t.” Still scary — but more manageable.

A Reluctant Inspiration

New Year’s Day was frigid — good news for Merritt: Heat worsens her condition. Even better, she woke to discover it was one of her “good days.” MS comes and goes; on bad days, Merritt stays in bed.

Merritt trained with her walker in the months before the 5K, even though taking a step sometimes felt “like a cinderblock tied to my feet.” Five kilometers seemed like a marathon.

Merritt and her partner arrived early and were greeted by coworkers. At the last minute, Penney decided to walk with Merritt, although she hadn’t trained for the race. Several times, medics approached to see if Merritt wanted to quit. At one point, her walker hit a chunk of ice and she fell. “I lay in the snow laughing,” she recalls. “All I could imagine were the medics breaking their necks trying to get to me in a panic.”

Merritt didn’t quit. And in the days that followed, many people said her walk was an inspiration. “Everyone has something to overcome,” she says. “It might be a broken leg or chronic back pain. Whatever it is, you have to face it and learn about it so you can beat it.” Her friends, coworkers, and even strangers have come to see Merritt’s 5K as a symbol of the power will has over the weakness of the body.

The truth is more complicated. “Sometimes people don’t want to hear about the crappy stuff,” she says. “It’s not all sunshine and roses. There are days when I’m in so much pain that I can’t stand to get out of bed. Days I want to just lie there and cry and wish I didn’t have it. Even a year later, I get angry. But that’s a natural part of accepting it and moving forward.”

There’s wisdom in this truth that speaks to our human frailty, and the fact that for every two steps forward in this life, most of us take at least one step back. “I’m happy if I can be an inspiration to someone,” Merritt says. “But if I had a choice of being an inspiration or not having the disease, I’d choose to not have the disease.”

Joe Hart is a writer, editor, and musician who lives in Viroqua, Wis.

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