January 11, 2004
Santa Cruz Sentinel
It was a Sunday that changed 28-year-old Liz McCreadie’s life forever, and a Sunday when it began to change back.
On that first Sunday, the former all-league soccer player and surfer woke up unable to walk without stumbling; unable to see anything that didn’t look like there was two of them.
On that second Sunday, she slowly rose on a long, blue surfboard and rode a wave long enough to make her feel normal again.
In between those two days, were three years when McCreadie was in a coma, then paralyzed from the neck down, then confined to a wheelchair. And finally, there was the day she met a man named Kevin Fontaine who came to be her friend.
They didn’t have much in common, except a belief that if you said you were going to do something, you did it. That if you made a commitment, you always showed up.
So that’s what they did for eight weeks this fall, working for the day when McCreadie could surf again.
"It was her dream," Fontaine says simply of why he came to help her.
"He was," says McCreadie, "my steady hand."
‘I felt weird’
McCreadie remembers the day when her life veered off course. It was Nov. 4, 2001, and she was 26 years old.
The day before had been like any other.
"I was always running around like a chicken with my head cut off," she says. She had a job at a restaurant and one as a wetsuit saleswoman and in between she was either playing soccer or surfing.
She hardly stood still.
So it was a surprise when she woke up on that Sunday morning and found that she couldn’t seem to walk without staggering like a street drunk, or that she was having a hard time seeing.
"I felt weird, and I just went and took a bath," McCreadie says. "And then my body just went completely warm; it just shut off."
Struggling for breath, she called to her father to dial 911.
No one at the hospital told her what was wrong, but a few days later they sent her to Stanford Hospital.
There, doctors said she had multiple sclerosis, an unpredictable disease in which the body’s immune system attacks itself.
It is a disease of the young, striking people mostly between the ages of 20 and 50, causing symptoms that range from blurred vision to loss of balance, slurred speech, fatigue, memory problems and even paralysis. About 200 people in the United States are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis each week.
But McCreadie didn’t want to hear what doctors had to say.
She smiles almost sheepishly.
"I went elsewhere for a better answer," she says.
It nearly killed her.
In a coma
After her first diagnosis, McCreadie went to a Eastern medicine practitioner who told her she had tested positive for Lyme Disease, she says.
He prescribed a series of herbs designed to combat the disease. She liked the diagnosis of Lyme Disease better than multiple sclerosis, which is incurable and unpredictable.
But a few months after she started the regimen of herbs, she started to eat a piece of orange and her throat seem to close up as she swallowed.
The orange slice stuck, and she couldn’t breathe.
"I flatlined in the ambulance," McCreadie says.
Doctors later told her that the herbs she had been taking had caused a kind of "reverse reaction" so her throat muscles had tightened up, McCreadie says.
Even though medical personnel was able to get her breathing again, she was in a coma for two days.
"When I woke up, I was paralyzed," McCreadie says. "I couldn’t even move my arms."
It was a frightening moment for a woman whose life revolved around sports, around being on the move and in the water.
Doctors began administering shots of a newly approved drug called Betaseron. McCreadie’s paralysis began to recede, she says.
She got out of the hospital after three months, but still had to use a wheelchair.
With multiple sclerosis, the body attacks the protective coating that surrounds the nerve fibers of the brain and spinal cord. The coating is replaced by scars of hardened tissue, which interferes with nerve signals to the rest of the body.
Doctors didn’t hold out much hope that she would ever surf again.
Setting a goal
As an athlete, McCreadie knew what it was like to work toward a goal. So she would do her physical therapy, three hours at a time, and then head to Rio del Mar Beach where she would simply walk.
Up and down the soft sand she would trudge, sometimes staggering unexpectedly to the right like she was on a tilting ship — the effects of her disease.
"It was always a goal to surf again," McCreadie says, even though she was a long way from that.
Surfing, she says, had been her life. She would take her short, 6-foot-2 board to the beaches at Manresa or the Hook in Pleasure Point, and work the waves hour after hour.
"It was a place of healing," she says of the ocean, "just peaceful."
But it was hard to find anyone to help her back into the waves.
That’s when she met Fontaine, a 42-year-old certified diver who was working toward a masters degree in sports psychology with an internship at Cabrillo College’s Stroke Center.
He is, he admits, a person who has a hard time seeing obstacles anyway.
So when his boss at the Stroke Center said she wanted him to work with a student to help her surf again, he said he would do it.
At first glance, it seemed an unlikely pairing.
She is small and blond.
He is muscular and dark.
She was a former surfer.
He was a former bodyguard for movie stars.
But Cathy Hogan, Fontaine’s supervisor at the Stroke Center, saw the possibilities.
"He (Fontaine) is just real observant," she says. "He’s able to pick up on a lot of people cues, and needs."
McCreadie, she says, "was just a doll."
So Fontaine and McCreadie headed to the pool at the Simpkins Swim Center on Sundays, where they worked on balance and strength exercises.
Then, they worked on shortening the time from lying on the board to standing up, because that was the point where McCreadie was most unstable.
Finally, they were ready for the ocean.
It took three weekend sessions before McCreadie was finally able to stand up.
"She was trying to take everything that came through," says Fontaine, who bobbed next to her in a wetsuit and fins. "I told her, ‘let’s just wait for the right wave.’"
When it came, Fontaine pushed her into a blue-green swell of water.
McCreadie felt the wave rise up and push her board forward, like the way it had done hundreds of times before, in her earlier life.
"You know what you have to do, and I just stood up," McCreadie says and grins.
"It wasn’t graceful, for sure," she says, "but I did it."
A competitor at heart
McCreadie and Fontaine sit next a wooden picnic table on a deck at the Stroke Center, joking like old friends.
"I was the safety crew," he says of his role in the water while McCreadie learned to surf again.
"You mean, the harrasser," she says and they both throw back their heads and laugh.
They talk about the day McCreadie went out in a big storm swell and how Fontaine stuck it out beside her despite the pounding waves and heavy white water.
Of how McCreadie approached her training with the dedication of an athlete readying for the Olympics or the Super Bowl; of how he got a coach’s joy from seeing her succeed.
"It was just two people who were willing to show up every weekend," Fontaine says. Two people who believed in commitment.
And an athlete who refused to be knocked down.
McCreadie says it was her competitive drive that helped keep her pushing ahead with Fontaine’s help.
"It’s like you and I are racing up a hill and my hill is very steep and filled with rocks and yours is smooth and almost flat," McCreadie says.
"But in my mind, I would still race you — and still think I could win."
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