By Susannah Meadows
Dr. Terry Wahls earned a black belt in tae kwon do when she was twenty-three. When she was forty-eight, she had to start using a tilt recline wheelchair. She’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that can disrupt the brain’s ability to communicate with muscles.
As a result of the MS, Terry’s muscles had atrophied from disuse. The athletic woman whose physicality had once been central to her identity now no longer had enough core strength to keep from op- ping forward.
But industrious and independent, she’d never been one to go along with anything imposed upon her. She’d always own her own flag.
So when the disease started to overpower Terry, and the available medicines could no longer help her, she refused to concede. Every evening after saying good night to her wife and two children, Terry would rev up her laptop. Completely used up by the effort it took just to get through a day — she was a clinical professor at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City — she would log on to PubMed, the mammoth database of biomedical literature maintained by the National Institutes of Health, scanning for all MS research. Perhaps by reading everything on MS, she’d find something her doctors had missed.
She focused on animal model studies because they were the cutting edge. They were also the longest shot; if something worked in a rodent, the odds of those results being repeated in a human were minute. Terry knew that it could take decades for a discovery to make it through all the safety trials, let alone be incorporated into medical practice. She obviously didn’t have that kind of time. She’d have to skip some steps.
After months of midnight digging, her shovel hit some interesting nuggets. A couple of papers mentioned that malfunctioning mitochondria could play a role in MS. Mitochondria are the tiny, units within most of our cells that convert fuel into energy. They’re often referred to as our cells’ power plants, but are involved in other functions as well.
Terry then looked into what was known about mitochondria upkeep. In one study, mice with an accelerated aging syndrome that were given a mixture of thirty-one specific nutrients lived longer lives. This flood of good stuff, the authors suggested, protected against mitochondrial dysfunction, among other mechanisms of aging.
How might this have worked? When mitochondria produce energy, they also emit exhaust, little molecules known as free radicals. When too many of these collect in the cell, they can damage the mitochondria.
Antioxidants — hundreds of vitamins and other substances that are abundant in fruits and vegetables — are thought to mop up this toxic grime before it can cause trouble. Here was food offering a possible way to recovery.
Terry started eating twelve cups a day of berries and vegetables, packing in all the heavies — beets, mushrooms, broccoli, blueberries, cabbage, and, of course, kale, that nutritional ingenue. She made sure she got a variety of greens and deeply colored produce. She sprinkled nutrient-dense kelp powder and green tea extract on her meals. She also embraced nuts, avocados, coconut milk, and coconut oil for their fats. As an established adherent to the Paleo Diet, she already knew how rewarding a relationship with bacon could be. Grass-fed beef and oily fish, too, which supplied valuable omega-3s. Organ meat was especially efficient, a full house, crowded with vitamins.
“That’s when the magic happened,” she says.
Over the next year, Terry’s strength came home to her. In addition to her new diet, she had also acquired an electrical stimulation device, which physical therapists use to help build back up atrophied muscles. She used it as frequently as possible.
Soon, Terry ditched her reclining wheelchair for an upright electric scooter. Then she started parking even that at the door of the clinic and using a cane to walk between exam rooms — her feet made friends with the ground again.
One day, four months into her twelve-cup-a-day diet, Terry was scheduled to meet with her boss for her annual review. It was early spring 2008. His office was up a big hill so she headed out for the appointment on her scooter. Halfway up the slope, the battery died on her. Fuming at herself for not having left earlier, she got off the scooter and started pushing it up the hill. At the top, she found a campus shuttle stop, but the next bus wasn’t going to come for another half hour. She checked her watch. She was already twenty minutes late. She didn’t have time to wait for the shuttle, so she abandoned her scooter and pressed on.
When she finally got to her boss’s office, his secretary scolded her. Terry remembers her saying, “Where have you been?” Terry was flustered and apologetic as she walked in to face the chief of medicine. When he saw her, he didn’t say anything. He wasn’t annoyed; he had no words.
The last time he’d seen her, about a year before, she’d been lifeless in her wheelchair, barely able to hold her head up. She had little use of her arms. She looked so ill, he was concerned about her ability to survive. “And then to see her walk in . . .” he says. “I mean, it was holy cow. I’ll never forget it.”
For her part, Terry was so concerned about being late that she hadn’t noticed that she’d just accomplished a major physical task.
At home, everyone in the family was certainly aware of her increased mobility, they had little faith that it was more than a last hurrah on a downward trip, a quirk of a reliably confounding disease. She still had a degenerative illness, one you didn’t come back from as far as anyone knew.
One Saturday morning in 2008, Terry’s teenaged son Zach was in the kitchen when he heard his younger sister Zebby yelling in the garage. He opened the door. Terry was reaching for a bike helmet. Zebby was saying, “You’re out of your goddamned mind.”
Zach was more measured. “Mom,” he said, “you’ve got to be care- ful. It’s a little different now.”
Terry and her wife, Jackie, used to enjoy twenty-mile rides together. But as her MS progressed it had stolen her balance. By the time Zebby was making a fuss in the garage, it had been six years since Terry had been on a bike.
Here’s what happened: Terry is saying, “I think I’m okay. I think today’s the day.” And by now Jackie has come out, and she starts lowering the seat on Terry’s old Trek bike, which Zach had been using.
They all walk down the driveway to the street. Zach helps his mother get her leg over the bar since her balance was still a little iffy. Both he and Zebby take up positions on either side of her. As her feet press on the pedals, the kids start running to keep up with their mother. Zach is ready to push her toward the grass for a softer fall if he sees her wobble.
And then she goes.
Her children and Jackie cheered like parents who’d just taken the training wheels off and let go of their six-year-old’s bike for the first time. But it was the reverse, of course, of that rite of passage, the children moved to see their mom make it on her own. They were all crying. “That moment means more to me than almost anything else I’ve ever experienced,” says Zach. “Seeing my mom on the bike.” There are layers of wonder. Wonder at the fact that she could ride a bike again. And wonder that such a regular act could be wondrous.
All those months that Terry had been feeling better, she never believed that real recovery was possible, either. But after that day on the bike she thought: Well, no one really knows.
Excerpted from THE OTHER SIDE OF IMPOSSIBLE by Susannah Meadows. Copyright © 2017 by Susannah Meadows. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Originally published at medium.com