My mother: if only I…

In 1998, when my mother was 72 years old, she had to have hip replacement surgery, with a prosthetic implant on the head of the femur. From then on, it was a downhill ride with the breaks on. She now wears a rigid corset to help with the excruciating pain her increasing scoliosis causes her. She also needs help to walk, given the severity of her asymmetry. To top it all, she must use Filgrastim, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) to control the irreversible neutropenia caused by chronic anti-inflammatory use.

All this could have been avoided if only I was a coach at the time.

My mother was born with severe scoliosis. In the mid 1920’s, there were not many options for this condition. There still aren’t, unfortunately. Between having her body imprisoned in a cast corset and a novel exercise program introduced by a “revolutionary” German physician at the time, my grandmother allowed her to choose the latter.

She became not only a very athletic child and teenager, but a strong and painless one. She could have been a competitive athlete if it weren’t for her father’s backwardness. She was a great swimmer.

Life moved on, she studied Natural History, became a biologist and married my father, with whom she had four children. She never stopped practicing whatever vigorous exercise program was available.

Her lifestyle allowed her to manage and live with her scoliosis – not cure it. There is no cure.

When she was 72 years old, a so-called therapist I never personally knew suggested that something called RPG would solve her issues. RPG is a postural intervention developed in France that stands for “Global Postural Reeducation”. The technique is based on external “adjustments” to restore balance to the body.

Here is the problem: there was no balance to “restore”. She was born with a severe scoliosis, which means from the day she was born and for the following seven decades, she developed morphologic, mechanic, proprioceptive, joint, skeletal and muscle adaptations to cope with the asymmetry, generating a possible balance. After the RPG intervention, considered “successful” by whoever did it, she immediately manifested a rapidly evolving arthrosis and soon her femur cartilage was gone. She came back from a trip abroad on a wheelchair. There was no question that she would need surgery.

That same year she got hip replacement and her doctor never told her she needed to practice a strengthening based exercise program for the rest of her life. When she recovered from the surgery, her locomotion was already compromised. Her daily walks to the store were gradually cut from her routine until she moved much less. The exercise programs she found were inappropriate. As her physical activity level decreased, her pain – and also depression and sleep problems – increased. More and more anti-inflammatories were prescribed. She belongs to the small percentage of patients who reacts to this class of drugs with leucopenia and erythropenia. It took, however, another 8 years for that condition to be detected. Since then, the only way to manage her severe neutropenia is with the granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, an expensive and potentially problematic drug.

It was only around 2011 that I met Monica Pimenta, a friend specialized in strength and functional training for the elderly. She has been with Monica since then.

My mother had just begun her training with Monica when she fell at her backyard and ruptured many rotator cuff structures. Surgery was out of question, given her age and general condition. The recovery of her ability to raise the right arm is considered some sort of medical miracle by her other (very competent) doctor. I consider it the result of her powerful determination and Monica’s relentless and competent training program.

This is the case.

I only met Monica after I had already changed careers and become a coach myself. Monica and I met in a strength training workshop and I had the intellectual tools to evaluate her work. When I recommended my mother to Monica, it was based on my new knowledge.

A knowledge that came too late: had I known a fraction of what I know today, I could have saved my mother. She would never submit to the totally inappropriate RPG intervention; I would have found a good trainer for her early on and she might not even have needed hip surgery, ever. Had she needed it, I would have supervised her recovery and she would never have evolved to the serious condition she has today.

Eight years. Eight years would have made the difference between a life with locomotory impairment, with the need of a rigid corset, growing respiratory difficulty and chronic pain, and a life with none of very little of that.

If only I were… If only I could… If only I had… But life is not about “ifs”. It is what it is. What I learned with my mother’s suffering has given me tools to help other people, I hope, just like what I learned with my own condition allows me to interfere in psychiatric and neurological conditions through strength training.

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