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THE KARATE COMEBACK: Holland woman throws roundhouse kick at Fibromyalgia

"I said, 'You know, enough is enough!'" -- Heather Galli

HOLLAND, Michigan — Fibromyalgia is a crippling disorder that's characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory loss and mood swings. 

Researchers believe that Fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals.

It's estimated that 10 million Americans and 3.6% of the world's population live with it.

There's no known cause or cure.

A woman from Holland spent several years suffering from Fibromyalgia because the disorder went undiagnosed, but thanks to a West Michigan hospital and a whole bunch of guts, she's managing her pain and has also rediscovered her passions and quality of life.

Heather Galli and her husband Michael own and operate PKSA Karate, which is a martial arts studio in Holland. Heather has been a martial arts instructor for many years, but in 2012 she started to not feel well and it was affecting her ability to teach.

"I started noticing some pain," said Heather, 48, mother of three. "My husband would do a hip throw during [karate] training and it was taking me a long time to recover because the sudden pain kept resonating through my body."

Heather says she felt herself losing physical strength and her hips and knees tightened up.

"Every time I hit the mat, the excruciating pain would make me nauseous," said Heather. "I've done a lot of different things in my career as a martial artist and I had never felt pain like that."

Heather made an appointment with her primary care physician with the hope of getting some answers and a quick fix, but that didn't happen.

"My doctor told me that I'm getting old and to go home and take an Aleve," Heather said. 

Despite the lack of direction and diagnosis from her doctor, Heather says she decided to buy into the fact that maybe her chronic pain was caused by her age. 

She was 41 years old at the time. 

So, she decided to push through and live with it, but as the months turned into years, the pain continued to intensify and ultimately became crippling.

"My body was deteriorating," said Heather. "It got to the point where I could barely get out of bed.

"I had to dig so deep because I knew once my feet hit the floor, my pain was going to start."

Heather says she called her doctor again and she was referred to a neurologist and a Parkinson's Disease specialist.

"I got no answers from them either of them," Heather added. "I had no clue how I was going to make it through the rest of my life with this pain unless it magically disappeared."

In the fall of 2017, nearly five years after her pain started, Heather finally received a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia.

"I was relieved to finally know what it was," said Heather. "I started trying some medications but they didn't work.

"I was really looking for a solution that didn't require injections and medications. I just wanted to be able to control the Fibromyalgia and get back to living my life and teaching karate."

In spring 2019, Heather decided to go to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Holland for help. 

"We saw Heather for her initial evaluation on March 5," said Dr. Lyn Hulst, who specializes in the management of chronic pain. "Her Fibromyalgia had gotten to a point where she was struggling to do her daily activities.

"Our approach is to determine how we can get each patient to be confident that they can live life even though they have constant pain."

Dr. Hulst says many people living with Fibromyalgia are afraid to do things because it's going to make the pain worse, but it's important to keep the body moving.

Since every Fibromyalgia patient is different, the physical therapists at Mary Free Bed tailor rehab programs specific to the needs of each one.

"When Heather came to us, she had two goals -- to stand and to teach karate again," said Teresa Miller, Mary Free Bed physical therapist. "I said, 'Ok, how do we get there?'"

Heather started a 10-week program at Mary Free Bed which included three hours of rehab at the clinic, in addition to being assigned exercises she was asked to do at home.

"We had some mini karate lessons," said Miller. "[I asked Heather to] show me the moves or, theoretically, what [the moves] should be so that I had a better idea of what I needed to do and how we get there."

Heather says she was assigned 10 different exercises that she did regularly. By the end of May 2019, her pain wasn't completely gone, but she could manage it and she was far more functional than she had been at any point of the previous seven years.

Most importantly, she could do and teach karate again.

"I feel much better," said Heather. "As simple as it sounds, I can get up from a chair without being in excruciating pain.

"When you can regain back control over pain, you no longer have to think about how you're going to have to maneuver your day to prevent the pain or keep it at bay the best you can.

"It's empowering."

Heather is back to teaching karate at her studio every day. She's accepted the reality that she will never be free of the Fibromyalgia, but thanks to Mary Free Bed, she's been introduced to several techniques that will help manage her pain. 

She says her quality of life has improved dramatically and she can confidently go back to teaching every strike, punch and kick karate has to offer.

While she was participating in the program at Mary Free Bed, Heather also passed a physical and mental endurance test that allowed her to elevate to a third-degree black belt.

"For me to be able to get through that test and come out the other side of that only feeling normal pain was incredibly rewarding to me," said Heather.

If you know of a someone or something that should be featured on "Our Michigan Life," please send a detailed email to 13 On Your Side's Brent Ashcroft: life@13onyourside.com.

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