Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. – Charles Swindoll
Normally my blog features the latest caregiving information and interviews with top experts or professionals in various fields. This week is different. Today’s blog is very personal for me because it is about my best friend. I have known her for 32 years and for 22 of those years she has been living with and conquering multiple sclerosis (MS).
I am dedicating this blog to my friend because May is National Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month and also because today kicks off National Women’s Health Week (May 8-15) and she has a story to tell.
I first met Vicki Guttridge in high school but we really bonded in college as USC sorority sisters. As we were living it up in our carefree, career-fueled 20s, my fun-loving, energetic friend was diagnosed at age 29 with Relapsing/Remitting MS – the most common of the four types of multiple sclerosis. This means she has periodic flare-ups of the disease which can rob her of her eyesight, her ability to walk and leave her overwhelmingly fatigued. She is not a hypochondriac – in fact quite the opposite – she is the energetic, spontaneous and joyous friend everyone wishes for in life. She is my big sister teaching me many things about life and no better lesson than the grace with which she lives with her MS. In fact, our circle of friends say, “you would never know Vicki was living with a chronic illness – she doesn’t dwell on it and she doesn’t let it hold her back.”
After two decades living with MS not only is she surviving, she is thriving.
When I think of Vicki two things come to mind: courage and laughter. It is these two things which have helped her with her diagnosis. While she has tried many therapies over the years to address the progression and aggression of this degenerative disease – including acupuncture, Botox for bladder problems, special diets and experimental drugs – her latest approach is to look at her life and apply a new style. She has undergone a complete makeover in her exercise routine and her diet. This is not easily done for someone who is a great cook and truly enjoys martinis on Friday night and watching Mad Men re-runs on her big screen.
When it comes to humor, she has a great attitude on her disease. She laughingly told me that she recently had a tense meeting which she felt may be a hostile setting. In true Vicki style she said, “I brought the cane and I worked it – after all, they can’t attack a person with MS, right?”
What keeps Vicki motivated is her family. She has a daughter who is a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis and a son who is a high school junior being recruited in football by colleges as far afield as Princeton (Vicki and her family live in California). She wants to stand and applaud at their graduations and dance at their weddings. A new plan of attack was needed and she dove right in – literally.
Taming MS With the Help of a Special Trainer
The guru behind Vicki’s transformational plan is a certified health and fitness specialist located in Woodland Hills named Michael Brazeal. As former head of the fitness program at the California Health and Longevity Institute and now owner of his own personal training service, Brazeal Fitness, Michael is no ordinary trainer. With a master’s degree in exercise science (as opposed to the six-week course many trainers take), and a dedication to using evidence-based research, I was impressed as he explained to me the customized plan he developed for Vicki.
It starts with a health history intake – to explore not just her physical and neurological challenges but also her lifestyle challenges. This helps Michael develop a plan to address Vicki’s physical and emotional hurdles. Vicki calls him her biggest cheerleader. Michael feels Vicki’s success to date – she has been on the new regime since January — is due to her behavioral change.
Part of his strategy is to use the Japanese philosophy of kaizen – the idea of continuous quality improvement which is applied holistically to one’s life. He also applies his own philosophy of “dosing appropriately.” Michael reinforces to Vicki that it is not about the destination – it is about the journey. Michael told me that good trainers are not unlike good physicians – they treat the person not just the body. He understands Vicki – what is going on with her body but also her mind. This means he can adapt her regime to what is happening in her life and not just with her disease.
For instance, one of their goals is to avoid the relapse in commitment that Vicki has experienced in the past when she started a new fitness routine. After she recently lost 15 pounds, Michael had her carry weights of that measurement around as long as she could during the day – up and down stairs, getting into the car, etc. This was to show her how she had alleviated her body of that unnecessary baggage putting less strain on her heart and joints. This type of technique serves as a strong memory for her to not put that weight back on.
For exercise, Michael has Vicki doing exercise in a pool. This helps with managing the heat sensitivity that so many MS patients suffer from, but also gives her the buoyancy of the water that helps Vicki with her balance – another MS challenge. He also has her walking – using hiking poles for balance, riding a stationary bike and doing a lot of resistance training with kettle bells and bands.
Vicki has noticed that her balance is better and her core strength improved which also helps with her range of motion. She told me she can reach for things on the top kitchen shelves without worrying about being wobbly on her feet. Risk of falls is a huge concern for MS patients and Vicki feels she has overcome this fear to the point where she rarely needs her cane. She also feels more energetic and says, “I don’t dread working out anymore.”
Knowledge is Power
Vicki truly believes that everything she has learned about MS, and continues to learn, has made her a better person. Nutritionally, she keeps notes in a smartphone app called My Net Diary. She tracks everything she eats and then discusses her choices with Michael. She has lost 20 pounds so far with Michael’s guidance, but she decided to try a new alkaline diet with an expert nutritionist. This type of diet is proven to improve many issues for MS patients. In general, the alkaline diet involves eating certain fresh citrus and other low-sugar fruits, vegetables, tubers, nuts, and legumes. It also recommends avoiding grains, dairy, meat, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and fungi. Proponents believe that such a diet maintains the balance of the slight alkalinity of blood without stressing the body’s acid-base homeostasis
She acknowledges her faith keeps her strong, her family keeps her going and her friends keep her feeling “normal” and in good spirits. She also realizes living with MS is like life – it is a marathon not a sprint.
What touched me the most was a story Vicki recently told me. Her son organized his football team to walk in the local National MS Society “Walk MS” event. Her husband of 26 years, Tim, became emotional after the Walk. Vicki asked him if it was because she could not join him in the walk and struggles sometimes to be able to physically do all the things she could do when he married her. “That’s not it,” he replied. “I was thinking about all the things you are capable of doing.”
For Vicki and Tim, the marriage vow, in sickness and in health, are not just words.
Michael Brazeal’s Tips for MS Patients
- Find a trainer you are compatible with – as with any relationship, this is essential for success.
- Find a trainer who is credentialed in health, exercise science or similar field (preferably a master’s degree or higher) ensuring they understand your disease and how to treat you holistically.
- Review your Tool Box consistently – this is a set of tips and techniques a good trainer gives you.
- Keep a Me File – your health history including all medications, exercises, therapies, doctor appointments, etc. (I like Microsoft Health Vault which you can find online for free).
- For MS patients – working out in the morning is best for heat issues – your body’s circadian rhythms which affect your body temperature are at their lowest levels in the morning.
- Track what you eat and what you do to exercise. Vicki likes My Net Diary. I also like these apps: Weight Watchers, Lose It, Good Food Near You (great for travelers), Nutrition Tips.
- Don’t withdraw. Don’t hide your disease. Stay in the game. Vicki has participated in clinics and graduate student programs at USC which address chronic illness issues. Not only does she learn more about her disease but she makes new friends. And, she does not avoid what she loves like USC football games.
- Get a massage – Vicki likes the chain, Massage Envy. It heals body and mind.
- If you have to use a cane – go stylish or don’t go! I like the Omhu Canes, Scandinavian-designed walking sticks with style that come in colors like turquoise, tangerine and royal purple.