Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Baby Steps

I have been a certified personal trainer since 1996 and have worked with many people of different backgrounds, but my most rewarding clients are those recovering from injuries or managing debilitating diseases. Meet my client, Marlin McKeever…

Inherited genetic Spinal Cerebellum Ataxia is a neurological disorder that damages the spinal cord and nerves that carry signals from the brain to the muscles. About 6 or 7 years ago, Marlin began losing his balance and coordination and took a blood test revealing this debilitating disease. As it progressed, he could no longer stand or walk and became dependent on a walker. Challenges with speech and the ability to write forced him to stop working. Marlin began visiting the Shepherd Center, a private non-profit hospital specializing in treatment of spinal cord diseases, for physical therapy and aquatic fitness training. After a couple of years, he felt the rehab at Shepherd wasn’t challenging enough to help him regain his abilities and the water fitness was only seasonal. He needed something more that he could do throughout the year. Family friends told him about the classes they were attending at my studio in Lilburn and about the private Yoga and Pilates training I offered there.

On May 18, 2011 Rose McKeever and her son, Marlin, came to meet me for a private training consultation. Rose, one of the spriest 71 year olds I’ve ever seen, held the front door open for her 45 year-old son who was walking with great difficulty behind a wheeled walker known as a Rolator. He was hunched and bent over as he pushed the Rolator awkwardly through the door and carefully sat for our meeting. As Rose described Marlin’s disease and its symptoms, I took notes and observed Marlin’s movements. When the verbal consultation was over, we went through a battery of core strength, resistance, and balance exercises for me to ascertain Marlin’s limitations and opportunities for strength. When the full session was complete, I calmly pronounced, “He can walk, you know.” Both Marlin and Rose looked at me like I had three heads, but they nodded politely and left after skeptically agreeing to return for a follow up session.

For the next month, I had Marlin do hip and leg exercises to mimic the movements of lifting the leg to walk. We worked on core abdominal and back strength from Pilates for standing tall instead of stooping. I challenged his motor skills and coordination with repetitive multifunctional movements. My goal was to retrain the neural pathways of the brain to the muscles moving his joints around the core. Repetition for muscle memory and improved strength was my plan. After a few private sessions, I suggested Marlin come to my Mat Pilates class. He was initially concerned about disrupting the class and not being able to perform the moves, but the entire program is lying on the back, the stomach or seated. After a few weeks, Marlin was a regular in the class and his core and upper body strength continued to increase. In addition to improvements in his physical strength, his confidence was soaring.

During our private session on July 28, 2011, Marlin’s mother, Rose, sat in her usual corner taking notes while Marlin and I went through our various exercises. I asked him to stand up and hold his stance without support while I counted to five. He did it four times without a problem. I don’t know what made me do it, but as he completed the last one, I heard myself say, “Okay, Marlin, take a step to me.”

His Rolator was across the room, I was standing two feet away from him and there was no table or chair for him to use as support. He looked at me, grunted in disbelief at my request, and blinked a couple of times. I saw Rose cover her mouth in shock in my peripheral sight. No one spoke as we all held a collective breath. I waited. Eventually, he shuffled his left foot a few inches toward me. I felt a pull of energy from my core to his. I knew in my heart that he could do this… right now… on this day. I was only a foot in front of him. I whispered, “Take another step. You can do it.”

He tentatively dragged his right food forward, then, again with the left. After several minutes, we all realized he and I had walked across the room to the door. We were so focused and connected, neither one of us had noticed how far we'd gone. No one dared to say anything. None of us could. He looked at me and I looked at him as we locked hands silently. I guided him to a nearby chair, gave him a high five and a hug, then frantically began recording notes.

Rose cried and prayed out loud as she went to hug him. Marlin began repeating, “I walked, Mama, I walked!” I could hear the disbelief in his voice.

I nodded with a smile. “I told you you could walk!” I turned my back to them to hide the tears in my eyes. I wrote notes without seeing them. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, then eventually turned to finish our session.

I later asked Rose what she felt that day as he walked for the first time since the disease had affected him. “I was shocked and exuberant at the same time. I was speechless. It was simply unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”

Marlin’s response was, “I have hope, again. I have hope.”

Since that day, Marlin has had good days and bad days. But every day he is stronger than the day before. Rose videotapes our sessions for Marlin to study and work from when we’re not together. He is the most dedicated client I have ever trained. When his neurologist saw him for the first time in six months, he was stunned by Marlin’s ability to stand, walk, and sit on his own. We accomplished more with Pilates, faith and trust in seven months than anything he had done before.

Marlin & Althea in Session

As you start this new year with plans, hopes and resolutions, remember to be faithful, courageous, and surround yourself with support. When you fall down, it’s okay to cry, but eventually you’ve got to get up. And when you feel like you can’t do it, imagine a voice whispering to you, “Take another step. You can do it…”