Movement is Medicine
Personalized Training Program Offers Roadmap for Recovery
Three years ago, Suzanne Clark sat in her wheelchair at a Soroptimist International regional conference, waving her hands and smiling while club members danced around her during a friendly competition.
This year, wheelchair-free, she taught her friends the steps and led the dance.
Suzanne, 60, said her recovery from Guillain-Barre syndrome is nothing short of a miracle.
Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks nerves. Its cause is unknown. It can spread quickly and cause paralysis in the entire body.
The illness came on out of nowhere, she says, remembering that she was in training for a 5K. She had lost 42 pounds and felt great. Then one day, her legs started bothering her. Her back hurt.
She tried a chiropractor, massage therapy and pain medication but nothing made a dent. Her doctor ran bloodwork and took X-rays, but didn’t diagnose anything amiss.
“On Saturday morning, Sept. 28, 2013, I went back to bed and slept until 2 p.m. Then my hands and my face started bothering me.”
She ended up in an emergency room where doctors recognized her symptoms and started five days of treatments that would save her life.
“I walked into the hospital, but by Sunday, I couldn’t even stand up,” she recalled. She was transferred to a rehabilitation center for three weeks before she was released home—in a wheelchair.
Progress over the next two and a half years was slow, but steady. Her legs still tingle and her arms are still numb. She eventually was able to walk again, at first with a walker and then a cane, and to drive. But these milestones weren’t enough for Suzanne, who wanted more.
That’s why she signed up as soon as she could with NorthBay Healthcare’s Movement is Medicine program. But first, Suzanne, who is not a NorthBay Healthcare patient, had to get her doctor on board.
“I joined HealthSpring Fitness when it opened in July, but I wasn’t using it,” she admitted. “I was too weak and intimidated. I needed help.”
“I decided my life path was…designing exercise programs for people with medical conditions to help them move better, feel better and improve their quality of life.”
She found help in Julie Cassara, a fitness specialist who was tapped by NorthBay HealthSpring Fitness to design its innovative new Movement is Medicine program, alongside Adrian Riggs, NorthBay Health Advantage vice president and General Manager Mike Cole.
Julie’s background in fitness and training began 17 years ago in Los Angeles, where she started working with clients who had medical conditions.
“Other trainers didn’t feel comfortable working with them, but I found it fascinating,” she said. She has gained a lot of experience working with this population. One notable experience was from her first case in college, a quadriplegic who volunteered his time to be a subject for the students. She was learning the technique of passive assistive stretching while working with him and he decided to have a little fun in the process.
“I was stretching out the muscles in one of his legs and his leg started to push back at me from a reflex reaction. He said, ‘You cured me!’ jokingly of course. He must have seen the surprised look on my face and followed by saying, ‘I do that to all the newbies.’ He was a great guy to work with and I learned a lot from him. His body taught me how to feel resistance and tell me when to push and when to stop. From this experience, I gained a strong desire to help people. I decided my life path was going to be designing exercise programs for people with medical conditions to help them move better, feel better and improve their quality of life.”
Julie continues to help people see the benefits of movement through exercise, creating a better mind-set and most importantly, reassuring them that even with a medical condition, they can improve themselves.
Movement is Medicine was launched quietly in January 2017, and by mid-March, 50 patients had signed up, just through word of mouth. The program earned NorthBay HealthSpring Fitness the Solano County Innovator of the Year Award March 2. The program has been receiving new participants daily.
Julie spends time connecting with each client, gaining insight and helping to initially guide them into the program and place them with the right fitness specialist. The program is staffed with 10 fitness specialists who have extensive backgrounds in working with people in this population.
“Our specialists work collaboratively with each other to be sure our clients are getting the best program for their specific situation,” said Julie.
The job comes with a lot of research. In Suzanne’s case, Julie had to study up on Guillen-Barre syndrome. “She told me I’m not like her other clients,” said Suzanne. “I can’t exercise every day; it will overtax me.”
In fact, everything about Suzanne’s routine was specially created by Julie. “I try to mix it up so it doesn’t get boring, but we have figured out Suzanne’s strengths and weaknesses and we’ve talked about her goals,” said Julie. “So for eight weeks, I plan sessions that will help her achieve those goals.”
Suzanne couldn’t be happier with the partnership. “This is just what I’ve been waiting for,” said Suzanne. “I like this place,” she said, looking around the third-floor workout space. “It’s not just a gym; it’s a place of healing. That was my whole thing—I want a place where I can go to get better. I know I’ll be permanently disabled, but I’m not giving up.
I always say, ‘Don’t let your fear of today take away tomorrow’s happiness.’ Whatever life sends your way, you can change. But sometimes you just need a little partnership in health.”