Mar 15, 2003
Akron Beacon Journal
When Anna Collins was diagnosed 10 years ago with multiple sclerosis, she could have let the crushing report stop her cold.
Fortunately for her and others caught in the MS web, Collins isn't wired that way.
"When I walked out of the doctor's office that day, I said to myself, `I'm going to take care of myself,' " says the Cuyahoga Falls resident, wife and mother of two.
After the initial sting of hearing the diagnosis roll off her neurologist's tongue, Collins chose to focus on his directive: exercise.
That prescription, she insists, has made all the difference, not just to her but also to a whole host of folks with MS who enrolled in her special fitness class at the Cuyahoga Falls YMCA.
I caught up with the 40-year-old Collins last week in the gymlike cafeteria at Holy Family Catholic School in Stow, where her class had relocated temporarily to sweat and to work out logistics for an exercise video they're about to make to help a much larger audience of MS victims.
Collins is a kindergarten aide at the school, is in charge of the before-and-after-school program and is an artist-in-residence. She also draws on a blackboard for three On Tap restaurants. Help with video
Jeff Sain, librarian and media specialist at Holy Family School, is donating his services for the project. Sain -- who teaches video production to seventh- and eighth-graders -- also plans to involve the school's video club.
Terry Bland, a guitar teacher at Falls Music Center, wrote music for the exercise video.
Although Collins sounds a lot like Hollywood choreographer-dancer-actress-singer-director Debbie Allen as she exhorts her exercise disciples -- `Work it!' -- she's ever mindful of their limitations.
Some have a wide range of mobility; others are far less agile.
"I taught myself how to teach the MS fitness class," the perky Collins volunteers. Then she approached the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Cuyahoga Falls YMCA, which gave her a green light to "Work it!" Goal is movement
On this evening, 17 adult students -- clad in their exercise gear and positioned behind her -- responded to their drill sergeant's every command. "Side to side! Circle those arms! Toe tap, twisting slightly!"
The fact that her proteges -- men and women -- weren't moving in the same direction or at the same speed didn't bother Collins one little particle.
The singular goal, she says, "is that they just move and continue to move."
Everyone works at his or her own pace to the soft but lively music of tunes such as Dancin', Shaggin' on the Boulevard.
MS is a wildly unpredictable and varied disease, with patients falling into four categories:relapse-remitting, primary-progressive, secondary-progressive and progressive-relapsing. Each type can range from mild to severe. Students' testimonials
Martha Bedell -- diagnosed 11 years ago -- has been a class regular for two years.
The 49-year-old Hudson woman and former Spanish teacher at Stow-Munroe Falls High School said her energy level has increased since joining the class.
"I feel great, stronger. It's very invigorating," Bedell says about coming to the class. "You just feel so much better no matter what the activity level is... It's such a fun class, too."
John Green -- hands down the most animated of them all -- modified his routines while seated in a chair.
Green -- who has limited mobility and walks with the aid of a cane -- still shows up week after week for the mandatory repetitions and the never-ending laughter all have come to expect.
He takes great pride in being the self-appointed class cutup.
On the serious side, Green, a 58-year-old Cuyahoga Falls resident and former project manager for AT and T, has been with the program since Collins started teaching it. Camaraderie is bonus
Akron's Mary Schmittle -- who's been coming for close to six years -- agrees with Green that the camaraderie is a bonus.
The 70-year-old former registered nurse was diagnosed "35 years ago. Then I had an almost-15-year remission."
"It's so easy to sit and do nothing," Schmittle continues. "But I've got to keep those muscles going."
Clearly. Between the outbursts of side-splitting laughter, Collins and company make a huge effort to recharge those endorphins and prolong locomotion.
They incorporate push-ups and sit-ups -- done with Dynabands, oversized elastic bands in purple and green -- into the 45-minute, twice-a-week habit.
Liz Terrill of Stow -- diagnosed two years ago following symptoms that included double vision and weakness on her right side -- started coming to class right away. The 32-year-old says she finds "the exercise and support of others who have MS invaluable: It's great to be able to talk to others who are going through it."
Camaraderie is important during good times and bad.
Anna Collins has experienced both the ups and the downs.
"I've had some fallbacks," she says, then quickly moves on to more upbeat talk about what she calls her "magical mix: Copaxone (an injection) and exercise."
Her students are on varying drug therapies. Big hugs
"Reach up! Lift! Get those arms up!"
Collins' voice bounces off the walls. "Lift those arms across the chest to the right. Now to the left!... Now modified jumping jacks!"
While still seated in the pretzel position on blue exercise mats -- after yet another round of repetitive movements -- the ebullient Collins urges her groupies to "give yourselves a big hug."
As if the class itself hadn't done just that anyway.
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