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Determined To Walk Again: One Woman's Experience With Pilates

Erica French

Pilates movements are designed to develop long, lean muscles leading to more flexibility and core strength. Some people with minor and even serious injuries have discovered the benefits of Pilates in their rehabilitation. And as our reporter Anh Gray explains, one woman in Reno is hoping it will help her to walk again after her spinal cord surgery.

After sitting in a wheelchair all day in her cubicle, Guadalupe "Lupita" Aguirre is eager to get her body moving again.

Taylor Lamanna: “Let’s move. Your body wants to move so let’s move."

Lupita Aguirre: “Yes. Let’s move.”

Taylor Lamanna: "Alright. Make sure those locks are on the chair.”

With soothing music playing in the background at a Pilates studio, her cheerful instructor Taylor Lamanna helps her out of her shoes, leg brace, compression socks, then slides her onto what’s called a “Trapeze Table”.

Credit Balanced Body
A Trapeze Table, also referred to as a Cadillac.

The contraption is about the size of a twin bed with sliding bars and metal spring attachments. To the uninitiated, the table might resemble a torture device. But for Aguirre, she’s here to heal.

“So, I’m going to go ahead and grab this roller-ball hand here. We’re going to wake up the bottom of your feet,” Lamanna says as she starts massaging Aguirre’s feet in circular movements.

About three years ago, Aguirre underwent surgery to remove a one-inch tumor lodged in the middle of her spinal cord. She recalls what the surgeon said to her beforehand.

“We are not 100 percent what could happen, but definitely if you don’t do it, you will end up in the wheelchair,” Aguirre recalls. “If you do it, you have 50/50. I recommend you put your stuff together.”

Credit Taylor Lamanna

After the operation, Aguirre’s surgeon told her it was unlikely she’d walk again. Working to overcome her paraplegia, she endured months of physical therapy and a short stint at an independent living center, eventually coming to this conclusion:

“I feel a lot of the therapy, traditional therapy,” Aguirre says, “is focused to teach the patient to live in a wheelchair.”

Unwilling to give up on walking again, Aguirre decided to seek out alternatives. She learned that founder Joseph Pilates had originally devised his namesake method for rehabilitation. In the early 1900s, Pilates worked with injured soldiers from World War I. Aguirre felt compelled to give it a try. And having already devoted 10 years as a Pilates teacher, Taylor Lamanna wanted to help.

“When someone has a spinal cord injury, her central nervous system has been damaged, so her spinal cord has been damaged,” Lamanna explains. "What we try to do now is try to rebuild and rewire the pathway.”

Lamanna says Pilates movements can help the brain to find another way to send signals to get the body moving—somewhat like a GPS system.

“It’s almost like taking a new route,” Lamanna says. “Google maps says take this way, and there is a car accident, and you need to take another way.”

Neurosurgeon Dr. Edward Perry is with Spine Nevada.

“I’ve always been struck by the positive feedback that occurs when patients, as far as being paraplegic, not being able to move their legs,” Perry explains, “if they get constant physical stimulation, the neuromuscular rebuilding seems to be faster, whether it be some sort of yoga, or physical therapy, or Pilates, weight training, or gait training. It’s absolutely crucial to recover function after a spinal cord injury.”

Credit Taylor Lamanna
Lupita Aguirre and Taylor Lamanna have developed a close bond during the time they've been working together.

Perry says rehabbing an injury should be adapted to each individual.

“There’s really no modality that I want to have people stray away from,” Perry says. “If it sounds like it could be a good thing, then it’s worth trying.”

Aguirre says that her two-hour Pilates sessions twice a week helped her to regain strength and mobility in her lower extremities.

Her progress has astounded Dr. Stefan Humphries. He’s the Medical Director at Renown Rehabilitation Hospital, and has been overseeing Aguirre’s recovery for the last few years.

“After she left us, she was in a wheelchair with the expectation that she might not walk again,” Humphries says. “That she’s recovered strength in her legs and also sensation in her legs is nothing short of a miracle.”

Despite those therapeutic benefits Aguirre’s sessions are not covered by insurance and private lessons can run about $70 an hour. As a single mom of two boys, her finances are tight. Even with those challenges, Aguirre says she’s sticking with Pilates because it’s worth it.

“My kids, they are my strength; I did this for love because I want them to have a healthy mom,” Aguirre explains tearfully. “I want them to have the best I can provide them but at the same time, show them that in life you have tests. You have situations you have to go through, you shouldn’t be coward, but be prepared. And put all your heart with all the intentions and everything is going to be fine.”

Working in the Pilates studio, Aguirre is working on flexing her ankles. She tells Lamanna that one of her goals is also to walk on the beach someday.

Credit Taylor Lamanna
Lupita Aguirre is able to stand with a walker.

Lupita Aguirre: “If I arrive to the beach walking, I don’t’ care if nobody bring me nothing. That means I can go and get it for my own.”

Taylor Lamanna: “That’s right. That’s a good goal.”

Lupita Aguirre: “Yes.”

It’s this hope of one day feeling the wet sand between her toes and also getting stronger for her boys that keeps Aguirre going back to Pilates.

Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.