Gage Follett: A physical therapy inspiration

Gage Follett was just 23 when she started experiencing excruciating headaches. Gage Follett - blog post photo 9-29-17
For years the headaches and extreme fatigue would try to weigh her down, leaving doctors puzzled as to what might be causing her symptoms. After five years, Gage completed an MRI, whereupon the doctor discovered a golf ball-sized tumor in her jaw.
Gage was diagnosed with salivary duct cancer, a very rare cancer that makes up less than 1% of cancers in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society (about one case per 100,000 people per year).
“I had surgery right away (in 2002) to remove the tumor, and then followed that with six weeks of radiation,” says Gage, a Sammamish resident and a member of the Sammamish Y since January 2016.
Just a month after she completed radiation, Gage became pregnant with her second child. Then, following a successful, healthy pregnancy, while whirling in the busyness of life with her family – her husband Zack, 10-year-old daughter Natasha, and newborn Alexia (who is now 14) – the unbelievable happened.
Gage recalls the day clearly: “It was August 3rd 2003, at 7pm. I was sitting on the couch and all of a sudden I went numb on my left side from the neck down,” she says, comparing the numbness to that of novocaine. “Zack was home with me when I called the on-call doctor. The doctor said he thought I was too young to be having a stroke but thought we should go to the ER so Zack drove me to Evergreen Hospital. At the time I wasn’t diagnosed with MS because I only had three lesions on my myelin sheath. Two weeks after my ER visit, I had a panic attack in bed at 2 a.m. That’s when my right side started to get weak. We checked into the ER at Evergreen again, but after one night they still couldn’t diagnose me so we requested to be transferred to the University of Washington hospital.
“At UW, they did an MRI and a spinal tap, and found four new lesions and at that time diagnosed me with MS,” Gage says, explaining that she has been in a wheelchair since that time. “I don’t think I’ve ever grieved over the diagnosed or the loss of my mobility, even up to this day I haven’t grieved. I guess for me my motto has always been keep moving forward. This MS is what I was dealt with so I do what I need to do next to move forward. I am fortunate to have an amazing husband that is going through this journey with me. He definitely takes our marriage vows seriously.”
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Foundation, MS is a chronic, neurological condition that affects the central nervous system (CNS), which is comprised of the brain and spinal cord. In the CNS, nerve fibers (called axons) are protected by a fatty layer of insulation called myelin. Myelin allows nerve signals to travel properly.
“In MS, overactive immune cells cause inflammation, which damages the myelin. This results in a loss of myelin – called demyelination – and some degree of axonal damage. Wherever the myelin is destroyed, a damaged area of white matter known as a lesion (or plaque) will occur. Over time, hardened scar tissue develops at the lesion site. This hardened scar tissue, or sclerosis, may develop at multiple sites throughout the CNS, hence the name Multiple Sclerosis. This scarring disrupts the transmission of nerve signals that communicate a desired action from the brain, through the spinal cord, to various parts of the body,” the NMSF website states.
“You can think of my disease as my nerves almost being like a garden hose with a bunch of holes in it – the nerves can’t transmit the ultimate goal of movement to the final destination in my body,” Gage explains.
The number of people with MS in the United States is estimated to be between 300,000 and 400,000. Worldwide, an estimated 2.5 million people have MS, according to the NMSF.
After years of physical therapists and doctors not being able to help get her mobile, Gage met Mihaela Walton, a personal trainer at the Sammamish Y, in October 2016. Progress was about to become real for Gage.
“In the past year Mihaela has gotten me to the point where I can use my left arm a lot better than I have been able to. I can now stand up on my own when I am doing the squat. I can now almost pull myself up out of the chair,” Gage says. “Mihaela is so patient with me. My progress is so slow. It (MS) has taught me a lot of patience and a lot of tolerance that I’ve never had before.
“I am so impressed that Mihaela does her research on what she can do with me. I am not her typical client. Her ideas are amazing and I’ve seen a lot of improvement with some of the new things I have tried.”
Mihaela, a full-time personal trainer at the Y for the past year and a half, gets so much joy out of working with Gage. “Gage really inspires me and motivates me to do well in my job. She keeps me on my toes,” Mihaela says. “Her personality just amazes me. She has the biggest smile and she is just a wonderful person.”
Why has Mihaela been able to help Gage in making more physical progress than any of her doctors or therapists have been able to, to date? “I do a lot of research for each client because each case is so different,” Mihaela shares. “I really try pretty much anything with her. I also volunteer a few hours each week for a physical therapist and I read a lot – mostly physical therapy articles and books.
“Helping people change their lives; correcting movement when and if I can – making a difference – that is what I enjoy most about being a personal trainer,” Mihaela says. “Every time I train a client I want to make sure that I have given it my best.
“We are heading in the right direction with Gage and it is so wonderful to feel like I can help make a difference.”