MS diagnosis relief, challenge for physical therapist
Posted on Mon, Mar. 18, 2002
BY RHODA FUKUSHIMA
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Former high school teacher and coach Tom Hol-tackers came to Minnesota to study physical therapy at the Mayo Clinic. After graduation, he began working there. Around that time, he began noticing mysterious symptoms: numbness and tingling in his feet, loss of balance and fatigue. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That was 30 years ago. Now 59, Holtackers splits his time working with hand therapy patients and working in Mayo's patient education department.
"Symptoms would come and go. From a physical standpoint, it wasn't affecting my life too much, except I'd get fatigued. At work, it wasn't bothersome, other than my loss of balance. My gait was a little staggered. I was concerned that people might think I was inebriated or high. I was cautious about how I walked.
"It was a difficult time psychologically and emotionally. You start to think, 'Am I imagining these symptoms?' The diagnosis was a relief. I could identify the symptoms with a disease process.
"The symptoms continued to get worse. It became bad enough that I had to start using a wheelchair. That was a big turning point. I joked about it — a physical therapist in a wheelchair is an oxymoron. I used it as a bicycle — to get from point A to point B. After, I'd get up and walk around.
"My perception of people's perceptions of me was very confusing. I wasn't sure how people were thinking of me. Demeaning? Heroic? It was a very difficult decision, but I had to make it because I wanted to work.
"Through that, I got involved in wheelchair athletics (basketball). I couldn't run up and down the court like I used to, so wheeling up and down the court was a good outlet for me. It also helped me gain wheelchair skills.
"I've used a manual wheelchair from the beginning. I have good upper-extremity function. I couldn't see using an electric-powered chair. It would also be confining. With my chair, I can pop the wheels off and throw it in the trunk.
"I worked at St. Mary's Hospital from 1986 to 1992 in the rehabilitation unit. I worked exclusively with patients with MS. It was utilizing my experience — personal and professional — with MS in a positive way. We had a bond, a very close bond.
"I ended up having surgery on my back. I had to have my back fused because I was developing bad scoliosis. I had a lifting restriction. Working in rehab, you have to be very fit. From there, I went to hand therapy. Patients can walk in and out. I don't have to lift them, stretch their legs, roll around on the mat.
"It's a different kind of bond. Some of the more severely affected individuals — like those with rheumatoid arthritis — I kind of bond with them. It's an autoimmune disease similar to MS.
"It's transcultural — between the vertical and horizontal worlds. Most of the time, I'm down in the chair. I do walk with crutches and a walker now. I use a walker at work to go short distances and maintain function in my legs.
"I consider myself no different from my vertical peers. I don't even think about it, other than when my chair gets in the way or if someone asks me.
"I could have gone full time into patient education. I chose to go half time because I wanted to maintain that patient contact. That's why I became a therapist."