Patient Highlight: Willy Valderrama
Monday, May 3rd: Symptoms began
Saturday, May 8th: Diagnosed with MS. Lost the ability to walk. Lost peripheral vision and more than 90% of vision in left eye. Muscle spasms resulting in loss of ability to hold basic items.
Sunday, October 17th: I ran a 4:22 marathon with MS 5 months after not being able to walk.
We are honored to be a part of Willy’s story and are inspired by the dedication he’s shown in his recovery with MS.
Monday, May 3rd, I woke up disoriented laying in bed. I had recently gotten a new glasses prescription and thought, at worst, this was going away in a few days once my eyes adjusted. That day I went for a 10-mile run but started feeling even more disoriented, dizzy, foggy, and my heart rate was through the roof with no signs of it dropping. By mile 6 it started getting a bit better, and I was sure this was over with. Fast forward to Thursday, May 6th my symptoms worsened. I was unable to fully support myself and had to use walls and furniture to get around my apartment. On Friday, May 7th, I decided to start asking some questions. A family Neuro suggested I head to the ER because he believed I had MS, a slight stroke, or a laceration in the back of the brain.
I was panicked by his response and went straight to the ER, but at the same time, I was sure I would be going home that night with a prescription for severe migraines or positional vertigo. Later into the night, after a few routine tests, they decided that a cat scan and an MRI were necessary. At 3 AM, the results from the MRI came back and showed active lesions throughout my brain and spinal cord that is typical of someone with MS. I couldn’t believe it — I am young, healthy, and have dedicated my life to athletics and teaching kids the importance of proper diet, exercise, and discipline. It didn’t make sense, but that couldn’t change the diagnosis.
After an extremely uncomfortable night on a stretcher in the hallway of the ER, I was finally admitted to the Neuro ICU on Saturday. At this point, my body had given up and I lost the ability to walk. My right leg was a bit better, but I had a heavy drag on the left. I had no peripheral vision in either eye and less than 10% of my vision on the left. A few days into my stay, I started developing muscle spasms in my legs and hands and quickly lost the ability to hold basic items, like chopsticks.
Following a week of initial treatment in the neuro ICU, I was admitted to the inpatient rehabilitation program at Weill Cornell called Baker 16. The great people over at Baker had a very intense program. It was a mix of physical therapy and occupational therapy that I did Monday thru Friday from 9 – 5 PM. I was able to make huge progress during my week at Baker and was able to walk short distances down the hallway with a walker and an aid. Although I am extremely grateful for the opportunity and time spent, I become depressed and anxious. I constantly questioned how I got here, and why me, but also how the f**** can I get out of here as quickly as possible, and start running again? That was the moment I signed up for the NJ Marathon.
A few days before I was set for discharge I had the chance to meet my MS Specialist. She was a great person, and we’re birthday twins. As we were wrapping up our introductory chat, I asked when she thought I would be able to run. She gave me a timeline of early to mid-July. I saw this as a challenge and knew I needed to get moving much quicker than that for my well-being and mental health. The thought of not being able to run a marathon never crossed my mind. I was going to do everything humanly possible to get it done.
I was discharged on May 17th. Quickly after, I began multiple different types of therapies – physical, occupational, vision, specialists, strength training, you name it. It was my full-time job and mission to get back to my old baseline the healthiest and quickest way I could.
On June 7th, a day before my 30th birthday, I was determined to run again so I went for my first lap around the track. Terrible decision on my part, but I needed a small win, even if I wasn’t ready. After a few weeks of long walks and short jogs, my ability to run with manageable symptoms started returning naturally. My lesions were still active so I had to be careful not to overstress my body and keep my heart rate low.
I graduated from the hospital physical and occupational therapies at the end of June and got back to my baseline. But something was still missing, thus bringing me to Finish Line PT. I can’t thank you guys enough for selling those Bandit socks for donation. An incredible gesture, but what I got out of it was a specific program that really catapulted me to a normal life and a better athlete. I started working with Finish Line PT on July 12th. I had my speculations, knowing how complex my recovery would be. But they set me up with Jimmy Williams and man was he instrumental. He knew exactly what I needed, was patient, kind, and cautious. I also brought Jimmy on as my running coach. He was the perfect guy for the job because he knew so much more than most about my body, this illness, and the limitations that come with it. For the remainder of summer, I saw Jimmy twice a week for PT, was running 4 to 5 times a week, and was working with a strength coach in Brooklyn twice a week.
I changed my diet to a more plant-based, high-fat fish diet. Consumed little to no alcohol and really focused on keeping inflammation as low as possible. I started really learning about my body and what my triggers were. In late August my lesions began going dormant, but I was struck with a low blow when they found more lesions on my lower cervical spine. Jimmy and I became more strategic with my runs and began a full marathon plan around mid-August. I would wake up for early morning runs to beat the sun, and if I didn’t, I could instantly feel my myelin wall just deteriorating and would become highly symptomatic.
Come September I had a massive breakthrough in my training. I was flying, crushing PR’s, and I felt better than I had pre-diagnosis. I was down from 180 to 158lbs, but most importantly I was symptomless. Our original goal was just to finish the damn thing, which we were both happy with. Thanks to my continued health plan of Finish Line PT twice a week, strength training plus Jimmy’s running plan, it quickly moved to a goal end time of 5:30. The week of the marathon Jimmy looked at my split times and heart rate and decided that 4:30 was on the horizon.
Fast forward to October 17th, almost 5 months to the day of being released from the hospital, I ran my first full marathon in 4:22. Miles 1-18 were a breeze, I felt good. Starting on mile 18 I struggled to keep my heart rate down and lost feeling in my feet. By mile 22 I lost vision and my running aid had to keep me from running off the course. But I finished. I ran a marathon with MS 5 months after not being able to walk. For the people in the back, I can proudly say I am a marathoner. A massive feat that would not have been possible without Jimmy. I can’t thank him and everyone at Finish Line PT enough for pushing me and making me healthy enough to run a marathon.