Norm St Landau, Conquering MS through Swimming
Presenting a very special fourth edition of Swimspire Stories! Norm St Landau has been battling Multiple Sclerosis for over fourteen years. As a competitive runner, Norm had to make many adjustments in his life to adapt to the symptoms of the disease that was overtaking his body. One of these adjustments included transitioning to swimming as his main form of exercise. Below we find out Norm’s story and how swimming has had a positive impact on his life. We are also thrilled to feature several illustrations by Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, who also happens to be Norm’s sister-in-law!
Through fourteen years of Multiple Sclerosis symptoms, cool pool lap lanes have been my oasis. Somehow swimming briefly tames legs and arms that don’t work perfectly, a body that tends to tip over, eyes that blur, and a foggy, confused mind. And armed with knowledgeable coaching, swimming replaced the MS-terminated running regimen I relied on for conditioning for decades. As important as pharmaceuticals with five-figure price tags have been to slowing MS disease progression, my $500 annual pool membership has been equally important.
MS is an incurable, chronic autoimmune disease that damages the communication channels between the body’s nerves, spinal chord and brain. The protective myelin sheaths are attacked by the immune system, causing scars (the “sclerosis”) that disrupt and garble nerve signals. Most body functions are fair game — commonly vision, mobility, sensation, digestive tract, reaction, thought and reasoning are affected. Extreme fatigue is a hallmark MS symptom. Heat and humidity usually intensify or even trigger symptoms and drastically limit activities. The disease may be mild and episodic, slowly progressive, or severe and swiftly disabling… and anywhere in between, which is perhaps where I fall.
MS brought an abrupt end to my 25 years of life on a runner’s high. Logging 5-15 miles a day and countless endorphins, I was a reasonably fit, 46 year old happy camper. In 2003, however, I knew something was very wrong after a serious vertigo attack landed me in bed for several weeks and my legs declined subsequent running efforts.
Four neurologists, five MRIs and a couple of spinal taps later, I was diagnosed with MS. Neurologists have an array of effective (and expensive) pharmaceuticals to slow down progression of the disease toward disability. Much tougher for me, though, are the challenges of maintaining fitness and calming my common MS symptoms like extreme muscle tightness, leg weakness, muddled thought and reactions, and increasingly extreme fatigue.
On vacation, I lamented my inability to exercise as heat sidelined me from biking or walking any distance. Family members suggested I try swimming. To my surprise, the water felt great and my limbs revived a bit in the pool. Using my self-taught stroke from childhood, I regularly and ignorantly slogged through local lap lanes for a few years simply because it felt pretty good – but with a sense I was not getting much exercise.
All changed dramatically a few years ago through a professional swim clinic from Swimspire hosted at the local YMCA. My goal was simple: I wanted to learn a proper stroke in order to use swimming as a workout to improve conditioning and develop muscle tone. The Swimspire coaches taught me drills that matched and gradually stretched my capabilities. The results allowed me to forge a range of workouts that help address the MS symptoms du jour (ou de l’heure, selon le cas!). And in the several years hence, my conditioning is improving even as MS symptoms otherwise progress and deepen.
Swimming turns chlorinated water into quite the miracle elixir for me. Many days I slowly limp into the pool in a non-communicative fog, take the waters, and emerge a bit more invigorated and clear-headed. Some neurologists speculate that immersion in 80 degree water allows my nerves to message more efficiently. Don’t mistake the meaning: As slow as I ran, I swim even slower – but quite ecstatically. Perhaps I’m producing the endorphins I lived on as a runner.
Escaping the array of MS symptoms, however briefly, is a terrific workout motivator. On particularly difficult symptom days, a cool pool lap lane is an escape route to stretch out muscles and soothe nerve endings through water massage. Swimspire armed me with serious tools for dealing with these difficult symptoms.
The long-term benefits of swimming as a workout are at least as important to me, I am sure. How much more debilitating would my MS symptoms feel without the benefit of regular exercise to attain a modest level of cardiovascular fitness and muscle tone? Swimming confers critical optimism as a reminder that I have options for feeling better and improving fitness.
For anyone with MS who considers swimming, I strongly recommend finding a coach and ensuring the coach is sensitive to limitations caused by MS. Swimspire listened carefully and understood the significant differences between limitations caused by MS nerve damage as opposed to muscle fatigue. Drills were carefully adjusted, conformed to my capabilities and tracked as I swam. The results of careful training have been well worth the effort and form a centerpiece of my MS care.
I discovered an array of wonderful, interesting ways to explore life when MS pushed me off of earlier, well-worn paths. Swimming has been an excellent alternate route.