More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Motion and Emotion: Tai chi class helps disabled participants make their way out of the house, and into healing

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

Jeff Morris rolls his hips from right to left as his muscular arms and hands flow around him like birds in slow motion.

He tells the group before him to twist, to bend, his exhortations sounding less like orders than a rhythmic, gentle meditation.

"Palms to heaven, up, up. Drop the elbows, push down, let it go, let it go, let it go."

His students comply from seats, from wheelchairs, from bodies that have been through too much.

In this tai chi class, the form is imperfect and the moves basic. But the will is pure and the need great. Everyone in the South Miami group, including the instructor, has a life-altering medical condition, whether it be AIDS, multiple sclerosis, cancer or the disabilities that follow a major stroke.

In just two years since they began meeting, the success stories abound: a walk down the aisle without a cane; walkers and braces left at home; unfathomable stress relieved.

"Here, it's not about perfecting a move, but about seeing if the movements help you with the tremors," explains Morris, 49, a former Wall Street stockbroker who has battled AIDS since 1986 and is now a volunteer instructor of Taoist tai chi.

"We're trying to work our way through these devastating terminal illnesses," he says. "We have disabilities, but we also have abilities. You have people who sit at home wasting away. What they need is to go out, be active, be inspired and be inspiring."


The class, which began as a collaboration between a multiple sclerosis support group and the Taoist Tai Chi Society, brims with inspiration and a feeling of family.

Former trial attorney Ann Thomas, 55, was diagnosed in 1987 with MS, a disease of unknown origin and without a cure that afflicts some 350,000 Americans. She has been attending the class since it began, participating from a wheelchair that allows her to stand during workouts.

"The class connects me to other worlds," she says. "I've met the most wonderful people here, whose stories go straight to your heart. I can't do all the movements well, but I like trying. It makes me feel like I'm not in this wrecked body."

The medical literature on how low-impact exercises can help neurological conditions like MS and Parkinson's is well researched. For the last three years, The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, for example, has been recommending its chapters get involved in yoga and tai chi classes because results have been so encouraging.

"People with MS in particular have a lot of issues with balance, and the classes help increase their range of motion," says Cecile Comrie, director of clinical programs for the South Florida chapter. "Muscle strength is what's important. You want to maximize what you have available. The relaxation aspect sharpens their mental acuity."

For Cristy Paz, 26, a former community relations coordinator for Camillus House, the motivation to start classes was her wedding day. Once an athlete, she was diagnosed with MS four years ago after persistent muscle-strength problems with her right leg. A friend in an MS support group told her to get to tai chi, and her newfound family made sure she didn't miss a step.

"I walked down the aisle on my father's arm. It wasn't the most graceful walk down the aisle, but I got there," Paz says.


The group shares more than exercise. Catastrophic medical conditions can bring on work and family anxieties, depression, staggering bills and loss of hope. Things that, regardless of the precise illness, are threads that bind the participants. Often after class, informal rap sessions ensue.

"It's not just about tai chi anymore. Everybody here has some sort of disability, Parkinson's, strokes, other things. You can relate to each other in ways you can't with anyone else," Paz says.

The group can swell to 25 or more. It practices moves from the Taoist form of tai chi, which combines various forms of the ancient health-promoting exercise. The movements are said to massage internal organs, get blood flowing and help participants achieve physical and emotional balance.

For accountant Antonio Pereira, who two years ago suffered a massive stroke that required brain surgery, the class has meant freedom from his four-footed cane and arm brace. A limp remains, but Pereira walks on his own.

"The doctors told me there was nothing more therapy could do for me, that I could improve no further," says Pereira, 57, who now takes two buses, the Metromover and Metrorail alone to get to class twice a week. "Practically from my first visit I felt an improvement, not just physically, but mentally. I can miss other things, but I don't miss this class."


The idea to teach multiple sclerosis patients and others with medical needs tai chi came from instructor-in-training Tony Garcia. An MS sufferer with a martial arts background, he felt the strength-building physical movements of tai chi could help everyone, body and soul, regardless of their condition.

"No. 1, this allows them an opportunity to be with another family. Reunion with other people is very important. And second, it gives them an exercise they can do," says Garcia. "When they're in here there's no MS -- just movement."

Cardiologist Orlando Santana came to class looking for a greater sense of balance, both literally and figuratively. About eight months ago, the 40-year-old doctor was at work seeing patients when he lost all sensation in his entire body below his cheekbones. He had been diagnosed with MS in 1993, but had never had such a devastating attack. He embarked on a journey into profound fatigue, expensive drugs, fear and hope.

"I was the epitome of the competitive, yuppie, driven, gung-ho professional, and within two hours I couldn't walk," says Santana, who practiced at Mount Sinai Medical Center. "I'm only 50 percent back. Sometimes putting your shoes on is like running a marathon. You can't understand how people who look so fit can feel so near death."

Having become a virtual expert in the disease, he says tai chi has been a welcome salve: "It's helped me with balance and to strengthen my weakened muscles, but most of all it gets rid of stress. After the attack, it was so scary I wrote my will, but now my stress level is almost zero."

Classmate Mayra Hernandez, a medical technician, is at peace with her MS. Now, she focuses on dealing with breast cancer, discovered the day after Christmas. Remarkably, the 39-year-old mother of three stays positive.

"I believe in wheelchair basketball, skiing for the blind, all of it," she says. "Yes, you have limitations, but there's a lot you can do. You look around and there's always someone else so much worse off than you."

Attorney Thomas, mother of three and grandmother to a new baby girl, serves as an inspiration to all her classmates, participating whole-heartedly from her wheelchair. Privately, she admits she wasn't always so open.


"Through all of this I learned a huge life lesson," she says. "It's hard to put down your pride, but pride is a foolish thing. No man's an island, and every day, over and over, I learn that lesson."

That's why instructor Morris shares his tai chi with nursing home patients and other groups in need of his turns and bends, his flowing hands, his truly understanding ear.

"I do this for all my friends who died and for my new friends who help me with my condition," he says. "I give a lot of love, but I get it all back and that's why I'm still here today."

Copyright 2002 Miami Herald