WESTON, Fla. - Exercise has always been a part of 44-year-old Jo-Anna Steele's life. The active wife and mother of two played team tennis in Westin, Fla.
One night, almost two years ago, she went to bed with a slight back ache. When she woke up, her whole life changed.
"Woke up with a charley horse all over my body and in 10 minutes, I was paralyzed from the waist down," she said.
The diagnosis was Neuromyelitis Optica or NMO. It's an autoimmune disorder often misdiagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis. Steele's immune system is attacking her spinal cord. Doctors feared she wouldn't walk again, but she does walk, with a cane. And she is getting stronger every day, in part, to the power of pilates.
"It works the body as a system, so we aren't just addressing single muscles, but we are addressing the muscles and how they move," explained pilates instructor Teri Lewis.
Getting Steel's muscles to remember how to move together is vital.
Steele uses the Pilates Reformer. It's an apparatus of cables and pullies. Because the exercises are done lying down, it works for Steele because her leg muscles are weakened by the disease.
"To me, it strengthens me and stretches me and I feel I need that," she said.
Ever week, Lewis works with Steele to build her flexibility, balance and strength using breathing techniques and concentration on core muscles.
"Some of the muscles she doesn't have use of," explained Lewis. "Some exercises she actually does better than you or I. She has to think and focus and concentrate because if she doesn't, the muscle won't move at all."
For Steele, the mind-body connection she gets from pilates is helping her defy the odds.
"My ultimate goal is to play tennis again," she said. "I would love to do that and I'm always going to keep that as something to look forward to."
NMO is a rare autoimmune disease, but there is a simple blood test that can help doctors diagnose it. In addition to therapy and exercise, Steele takes a chemotherapy drug that is helping to stop the future attacks on her spinal cord.
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