It was thanksgiving 2013 when I awoke to blurred vision in my left eye. I wasn’t initially alarmed as was tired and extremely stressed at the time. The holiday season was approaching and I had just turned down what had the potential to be a huge job opportunity, solely based on something deep in my gut that was screaming at me not to take it. My life felt like it was in a complete upheaval. In times of stress and/or exhaustion in the past, I would have vision problems that always resolved themselves. I figured after a rest filled holiday weekend, my sight would be back to normal. This time, that was not the case.
One week later, December 5th, my 32nd birthday, my vision hadn’t returned to normal, it got worse. Bad enough that I was light sensitive, and couldn’t focus on anything in front of me. I couldn’t ignore it anymore; I had to go to a doctor. It was a vision problem, so I naively called an ophthalmologist and luckily he could see me that day.
He dilated my eyes, and that’s when he discovered my optic nerve was incredibly swollen. He looked at me and said, “This isn’t a vision problem, it’s a neurological issue, you need a neurologist.”
The doctor paused and said, “I don’t want to tell you this, but 80% of the time, this is a symptom of MS.”
How? I thought. I’m a yoga instructor. I’ve run a marathon. Before that I was a competitive figure skater. I’ve been an athlete my whole life! There’s no way I could possibly have MS.
Being the somewhat irresponsible person I can be, at this particular time in my life, I didn’t have health insurance. That meant that just getting into a neurologist wasn’t exactly possible. I had to go through Cook County, which took weeks.
During that time, I started to experience other symptoms. My hands and feet were numb and I had a hard time going from seated to standing. Both of which we’re frightening enough, but what was really troubling were the problems I noticed when I practiced and taught yoga. I couldn’t touch my toes, my back shuddered when I folded forward, and I had trouble articulating. Words and phrases that were second nature to me when I taught, we’re starting to elude me. I knew something was seriously wrong. It’s like my gut from when I turned down that job I mentioned earlier, knew this was coming.
When I finally got in to see the neurologist at Cook County my symptoms were in full force, but the doctor dismissed them. He didn’t listen to me at all and went as far as to say, “Most people can’t touch their toes.”
Now I understand it’s the Cook County system, it’s not ideal. A 32-year-old girl who can’t touch her toes or see out of one of her eyes isn’t exactly top priority. I needed some insurance and a new neurologist, stat.
Thankfully, the Affordable Care Act was finally activated! (At this time, I’d like to thank President Obama for making healthcare more affordable for self employed yoga instructors like myself.) Anyway, with my new insurance, I was able to schedule an appointment with a non-county neurologist. She was young and hip, and most importantly, a good listener.
Before we even started an exam, she asked me about being a yoga instructor. She acknowledged that because of yoga, I must have a huge understanding of my body, which is true. Yoga cultivates a mind/body awareness like no other.
She was concerned about my eye, but what really troubled her was that I couldn’t touch my toes. My muscle tone was great, but my flexibility had decreased so much so fast, that something had to be causing it. She watched me fold forward, and observed the shuddering in my back. On those symptoms alone, with my history as an athlete, she felt pretty confident in what the results would be of an MRI and spinal tap.
Sure enough, two weeks later, after all my tests, it was confirmed MS. I was relieved. Finally a confirmed answer. Now let’s treat it!
“Well, the first thing I tell my patients after a diagnosis like this, is to eat healthy and do yoga,” my doctor said, then told me to keep up the good work. To which, we had a good laugh. Since then, I’ve also started weight training and got back to running three times a week along with my consistent yoga practice. I’ve also been on Copaxone injections three times a week. All of which have led me to feeling back to almost completely normal. Thankfully, I can count on my yoga practice to help me monitor my body for any new complications.
If there’s one thing I’d like people to take from my story, it’s how important it is to truly know your own body. It doesn’t have to be yoga; any physical activity will help encourage better knowledge of yourself.
Katie Calihan is a Chicago area yoga instructor who teaches all levels from beginner to advanced. She’s a career athlete, with a history of figure skating, long distance running and a committed yoga practice. Thanks to her athletic endeavors, she has a great understanding of the human body and what it is capable of, as well as how to practice self care. It’s this relationship with her body that allows Katie, who is now living with MS, to maintain and enjoy a healthy, active lifestyle.
Photos courtesy of Whitney Fitzpatrick Photography.