Fitness Saved My Life: From MS Patient to Elite Triathlete
Six years ago, Aurora Colello-a 40-year-old mother of four in San Diego-never worried about her health. Though her habits were questionable (she grabbed fast food on the run, downed sugary coffees and candy for energy, and had never set foot inside a gym), Colello didn't look sick: "I used to think that because I was skinny, I was healthy."
And on a random day in November 2008 while making lunch for her children, Colello completely lost her vision in her right eye. Later, an MRI revealed white lesions all over her brain. Inflammation of her optic nerve signaled Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an often debilitating and incurable autoimmune disease. Doctors told her words that no woman thinks she'll ever hear: "You'll be in a wheelchair in less than five years."
A Rough Beginning
Scary symptoms like pain, numbness, not being able to walk, losing control of your bowels, and even going completely blind woke Colello up to her lifestyle: "I realized that no matter what size clothes I wore, I had to get healthy," she says. Another major hurdle? Colello was extremely wary of the medications that doctors were pressuring to her to take-many had major side effects. Others weren't nearly as effective as they promised to be. So she refused medication. Other options were slim, though. Colello talked to many other MS patients about potential solutions until she came across one she hadn't heard before: "A local man I connected with told me about an alternative medical center in Encinitas, California," she recalls.
But walking into The Center for Advanced Medicine in Encinitas, Colello was freaked out. She saw people sitting in recliners, casually reading magazines and chatting-with large IV tubes sticking out of them-and encountered a naturopath who told her to lie down on a table to massage away her problems. "I almost walked out. I thought I was being conned," she says. But she stayed and listened as the doctor explained: Massage would stimulate the optic nerve running through her neck and help her vision return. Dietary changes, supplements, and other natural methods could help control the disease by restoring deficiencies and helping her body absorb nutrients it was lacking, he told her.
With an open mind, she took those first supplements. Two days later, she started to see spots of light. After 14 more days, her vision was fully restored. Even more amazing: Her eyesight improved. Doctors adjusted her prescription. "That was the moment I was 100 percent sold on alternative medicine," she says.
A New Approach
The root of every MS symptom is inflammation-something Colello's unhealthy eating habits contributed greatly to. And the Center for Advanced Medicine approached the disease differently: "They treated it not as a disease, but as an imbalance in my body," she says. "Alternative medicine looks at you as a whole person. What I ate or didn't eat and whether or not I exercised had a direct effect on my health and MS."
Accordingly, Colello's diet underwent a major overhaul. "All I took in the first year was raw, organic, healthy foods to let my body heal," Colello says. She strictly avoided gluten, sugar, and dairy, and swore by eight tablespoons of oils a day-coconut, flaxseed, krill, and almond. "My kids started eating seaweed and smoothies for snacks instead of Fruit Roll-Ups. I drove my family nuts, but I was scared to death."
Today, Colello eats fish, grass-fed meat, and even the occasional dinner roll, and motivation is easy: it's staring her in the face. "When I was slipping up in my diet for a period of time, I experienced excruciating pains all over my face-a symptom of MS that's called the suicide disease because it's so agonizing. Now, I don't slack off, no matter how hard it is."
Colello also revamped her fitness routine-or lack thereof. At age 35, for the first time in her life, she joined a gym. Though she couldn't run a mile, little by little, endurance improved. In a month, she was clocking two. "Instead of getting sicker and weaker like doctors originally told me I would, I felt better than I had my entire life." Encouraged by her progress, she cobbled together a triathlon-training plan, and in 2009, completed her first-just six months after her diagnosis. She was hooked on the high-and did another and another. At her first half-Ironman (a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run) two years ago, Colello finished fifth place in her age group.
On a Mission
Sometimes fear can be a good teacher. One year after her diagnosis, Colello got the call of a lifetime from her neurologist: Her brain was clean. Every lesion was gone. While she wasn't technically cured, her dire diagnosis had turned into relapsing/remitting MS, when symptoms appear only sporadically.
Now, Colello's on a new mission to help others with MS. She devotes much of her time working with a nonprofit, MS Fitness Challenge, which partners with local gyms providing people with the disease free memberships, trainers, and nutrition guidance. "I want to give others the same hope: There is something you can do to improve your life, no matter how little energy you may have after being diagnosed. Something as simple as going to the gym can make such a difference."
Colello has said goodbye to the lazy (yet naturally skinny), woman she was six years ago. In her place? An elite triathlete with seven races lined up this year, 22 under her belt, and hopes for the 2015 Kona Ironman-one of the most challenging races in the world-in her future.
To learn more about Colello's story and the MS Fitness Challenge, visit auroracolello.com.