85: The Wounded Healer

85: The Wounded Healer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

The Wounded Healer

We acquire the strength we have overcome.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

As a marathon runner and regular gym groupie, physical fitness was my life. I would show up late for social engagements in order to get my run in. All that changed in May 1997. At thirty-seven years old, I survived a near-fatal car accident. I had no broken bones or cuts. I did, however, experience a traumatic brain injury.

After several weeks in a coma, I woke up with a raspy voice and no balance. My voice was hard to understand and my mobility was shot.

The week before the accident, I had opted for an easy running week. I only logged twenty miles in my running diary that week. Now I had to scoot around on my bottom until I learned to use a walker. Talk about a humbling experience. I had to relearn how to sit, stand, walk and move about. I didn’t have to relearn to talk or eat though. That came pretty naturally. I promptly gained fifteen pounds.

My behavior was horrendous! My father says I used language that would “make a sailor blush.” I’m guessing that is not a good thing. Since I have very little memory of that time, I have to base my facts on what family and friends have told me. People with traumatic brain injury go through several stages in their immediate recovery. It sounds like my potty-mouth stage lasted longer than the others.

Between critical care and rehabilitation, I spent several months in the hospital. That gave me plenty of time to reflect on how much rehabilitation it was going to take to get back to where I was before the accident. I prayed a lot, used my potty mouth a lot, and came home determined to fix it all.

Once a marathoner, I used to run on a treadmill when it was bitterly cold outside. Now I needed a treadmill to give me support while I learned to walk. Fatigue was a constant companion after my brain injury. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was practicing walking on my treadmill. I was upset and baffled. Why had this happened to me? I had so much! Life as I knew it . . . was over. I knew it was an accident, but it was so hard!

Needing a walker was embarrassing beyond words. I was so ashamed. I had run marathons. Now I needed a walker to make it to the bathroom on time. Learning to live with this new body of mine was going to take time and patience. So seven years of physical therapy later, I began walking on my own. I walk slowly and haltingly. I keep a walker around for when I need to move quickly.

During all these years of recuperation, I remained a gym groupie. As I watched the personal trainers working with their clients, I knew I was as fit as they were. I didn’t have to walk to write a fitness plan, or demonstrate proper use of exercise equipment. So I decided this would be my new purpose. I started studying for the personal training certification exam immediately.

My previous career as a pharmaceutical rep gave me an understanding of the body’s anatomy and physiology, but memorizing new terms was very hard for me. My memory wasn’t as good as I thought it was. Maybe my mind had become lazy from not studying for so many years. Whatever the reason, I had to take the exam twice before I passed the certification. Once I did, my health club immediately hired me.

However, if you don’t obtain clients, you don’t work. Who was going to choose me with a health club full of able-bodied trainers? My marketing background went right out the window. How do you promote a trainer with a balance and voice impairment? All that training and studying! Had I done the wrong thing? How could I promote myself? Seems the Lord had a different plan for me.

A woman from the Vocational Rehabilitation Office suggested I teach group exercise classes in senior homes. Voc Rehab even bought me a portable sound system with a microphone. The microphone helps the seniors to hear my soft voice over the oldies music I use in class. Over time, I’ve been able to add more classes. I started out teaching muscle toning and flexibility. Then I added more and more balance exercises. Balance work is so important for older people. And for me too! Now the exercises I teach are helping me as much as they do my class. The years as a physical therapy patient have given me lots of cues to use as I teach my classes.

A personal trainer — on a walker? It’s not something you see every day. While my students aren’t athletes or body builders any more, working with seniors gives me an audience that appreciates what I have overcome through regular exercise. I’m able to encourage them beyond what they thought they could do.

No longer do my disabilities embarrass me or make me feel ashamed. They have led me to a new purpose in life; inspiring and encouraging those I serve. Many times I hear myself using the same verbal cues with my classes that my physical therapists used while trying to get my body moving the way it did before my accident. “Elevate your rib cage.” “Bring your hip bones forward.” “Relax your shoulders.” Sometimes I sound like a broken record!

My new purpose as a “wounded healer” uses the issues I’ve struggled with to motivate and encourage the seniors in my class. By showing them the exercises I’ve done to regain my mobility and strength, I’m showing them ways to maintain their own. To continue living independently, these seniors need to keep their bodies moving on a regular basis, just like I do.

I help them keep their bodies in proper alignment to make the tasks of everyday life easier. If caught slouching in my class, they are sure to hear me say, “Elevate your ribcage” for the fifteenth time.

Improved muscle tone and flexibility are not the only benefits of taking my classes. It’s also a great opportunity for them to build camaraderie with the other residents. We share fashion tips, food recommendations and discuss current events, all the while commiserating about why we have to exercise. We laugh, joke, and truly enjoy our time together.

I’ve found my new purpose in leading these classes for seniors. I show them how to remain strong and flexible. They provide me a wonderful outlet for helping people again.

My days of being a long-distance runner are gone, but they led to a new and more meaningful purpose. My race time is slower now, but much more rewarding.

~Mary Varga

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