When she was 8 years old, a team of specialists told Kerry Wiley she would never walk without aid devices. Twenty-nine years later, she’s proving them wrong.
Wiley was born with spastic cerebral palsy, a condition caused by injuries or abnormalities in the brain, which affects her lower limbs.
“It’s a disability that results from premature birth and basically makes my muscles very stiff, and it results in balance and coordination difficulties,” she explained.
All of her life, she has used either crutches or canes to support herself while walking, but that hasn’t slowed her down. The Albany resident owns her own home, earned a master of social work degree from the University at Albany and has worked in the disability field in research and program development for over 15 years.
As far as she’s concerned, her medical condition hasn’t affected her life. “It just means thinking differently to accomplish what I want,” she says.
But at age 30, the strain of constantly relying on her upper body when she walked resulted in significant back problems, and finding a solution proved problematic.
“When I went the traditional route of physical therapy, the primary response that I got back was that I had to deal with issues of chronic pain and just basically, ‘suck it up,’ and ‘this is how your life is going to be,’” she recounted.
But that line of thinking didn’t fly with Wiley. She worked with a team of specialists to find other options. Alternative devices didn’t work and neither did medication, so in May 2006 she decided to take a chance on an unconventional treatment method.
Under the surveillance of her regular medical team, twice a week she began working with a personal trainer at Plaza Fitness at Stuyvesant Plaza. A customized exercise program was developed, and outside of her supervised sessions, she began swimming and doing prescribed home exercises at least four days per week.
There is a difference between a personal trainer and the physical therapists she had worked with exclusively in the past. A personal trainer has free rein to work on a client’s entire body, whereas a physical therapist focuses on a body part that has an injury, malfunction or deficiency, said James R. House III, a movement specialist at Plaza Fitness; he has been Wiley’s personal trainer for the past three years.
Wiley further explained: “I am using a proactive versus reactive method of intervention, and physical therapy, historically, is reactive. You’re going to them injured, where they’re trying to fix it, whereas you can’t fix cerebral palsy, you can improve the management of it, and that’s what I’m attempting to do, because at 37, I want to be mobile until I’m 90, if I’m lucky to be on this planet that long.”
Two or three months after she started working out, the pain Wiley had been experiencing began to diminish. Over the course of nearly seven years, she has gained walking function that previously was nonexistent and is working toward walking without ever having to use aid devices. She now just uses them mainly outdoors, to go up and down curbs and to navigate safely in ice and snow.
Wiley is elated with her success, but is also quick to note that working toward her goal has not always been a walk in the park. There have been days when she has been ready to give up.
Three herniated disks halted her progress for a year.
Wiley’s workouts have involved conventional exercises like using a rowing machine, but along the way she has also learned to box and now tackles outdoor agility drills that take her up and down hills she once couldn’t navigate.
“Basically, we are trying to retrain my brain and body to move like [others’] naturally do ... and it’s working,” she said.
“My disability is something that I’m going to live with the rest of my life. The presence of a diagnosis of cerebral palsy will not change, but how I manage it, how I improve with it, changes constantly,” she explained.
House described Wiley as a model student who works hard, does her homework, eats right and goes to bed early.
The process of working with a personal trainer has been transformational, Wiley said. And as her goal to walk independently at all times comes within reach, she’s already got her eye on the horizon.
“The next step is learning how to run,” she said.