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Custom-Made Care: Cathy May Participates in Shepherd’s Comprehensive MS Wellness Program

Shepherd Center offers programs that build upon the solid foundation of traditional therapy to support patients’ overall wellness and prepare them and their families for vibrant lives back home.

For years, Cathy May’s multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms — vision issues, balance issues, fatigue, and more — were ascribed to other causes. She felt relieved when she finally received an MS diagnosis in 2009. But the relief didn’t translate into a sense of ownership over her health. For too long, Cathy still felt at the mercy of her symptoms.

That changed in 2017, a few years after moving from her native Philadelphia to Atlanta, when she first met Ben Thrower, M.D., medical director of Shepherd Center’s Andrew C. Carlos Multiple Sclerosis Institute. After treating Cathy’s latest flare-up and updating her medications, Dr. Thrower recommended she join Shepherd Center’s MS Wellness Program.

Now a decade old, the program was one of the first in the nation to integrate all aspects of wellness — fitness, nutrition, mental health — into a comprehensive, yet customized, approach for people with MS.

“For the first time, I learned how I can actively fight MS,” Cathy says. “And I fight it by keeping my body strong and less stressed. When I do that, it helps my strength, my flexibility, and my cognitive issues. I am probably more fit today at 69 than I was in my 40s!”

Ever since, Cathy has taken advantage of the MS Wellness Program’s slate of exercise and educational classes: whole-body exercise twice a week, pool classes, aerobics, yoga, and pilates.

“I never thought at my age I’d be starting pilates,” Cathy says with a laugh. “There are some things in the class I can’t do, but I try it all. And it’s all adaptive. It’s mat pilates. Seated yoga. No matter what stage you’re at, I’ve realized there’s always something you can do to fight MS and keep yourself going.”

Cathy thrives when she takes charge of her health. Shortly before moving to Atlanta in 2013, she decided to get serious about losing the weight she’d put on due to her physical challenges. She began walking two miles a day and eating healthier. It took four years, but she lost more than 100 pounds.

Unfortunately, in 2018, the combination of her MS-related spasticity and the arthritis in her knees robbed Cathy of those long walks. The loss took a toll on her emotionally. So, Cathy did something else she hadn’t done before; she talked to a staff psychologist at Shepherd Center about how MS was affecting her mentally.

“I was kind of resistant because I can usually talk things out myself,” Cathy says. “But she helped me understand that I was really grieving the loss of those long-distance walks. I had used those walks to figure things out in my mind. They helped me mentally as much as physically. So, I came up with new strategies for thinking through things, and my counselor directed me to a new aerobics program to help replace the walks to some degree.”

Thankfully, there’s far more that Cathy can do, thanks to the wellness regimen her team built just for her. Using a walker has helped keep her mobile and on her feet. She spends a month over the holidays in London, where her daughter Robyn lives. She’s active in Atlanta’s MS community. And she enjoys seeing plays and trying new restaurants around Atlanta with her friends — including Clinton, her partner of six years.

“We lived in the same building, and he would always stop and talk to me,” Cathy says. “Six years ago, we started talking for real one day, and we’ve been together ever since. He grew up on a farm in southwest Georgia, and I’m a city girl from West Philly, just like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. So, we have a lot of fun together.”

 Written by Phillip Jordan          

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.