A love story: A fitness instructor and her paralyzed husband
SONYA N. HEBERT/DMN
12:00 AM CDT on Wednesday, April 15, 2009
It is, no doubt, a major act of love.
But I couldn't help wondering if it's not also a little cruel – dragging a paralyzed guy to an exercise class.
At the Lifetime Fitness in Plano, instructor Cheryl Pacinda leads her usual Monday morning spin class.
Some 50 people are arrayed in front of her on stationary bikes, all pedaling madly to the pounding music and Cheryl's peppy, nonstop encouragements.
And as usual, beside Cheryl at the front of the room is one small island of stillness in the whirring sea of hyperactivity.
It is Cheryl's husband, Mark, permanently stilled by ALS. Or Lou Gehrig's disease.
While everyone else in the room mops sweat with white towels, 45-year-old Mark sits in his wheelchair with two blue blankets pulled up tightly beneath his chin, protection against the gusts of air conditioning.
It is a scene almost too incongruous to comprehend: Cheryl's relentless, high-energy motion contrasted against Mark's placid immobility.
At times, Cheryl is on her stationary bike at the front of the room, calling the pace on a headset microphone. At other times, she flits around the room, exhorting the riders on.
And in the midst of it all, without missing a beat, she attends to her husband. "You OK, honey? You want a suction?"
He blinks out a "No." For the moment, the breathing tube in his throat isn't clogged.
Slight movement of the head is all the motion Mark has left. The scourge of ALS is that it leaves the brain functioning fine inside a body that quits inch by inch.
In a chat after spin class, I heard Mark and Cheryl's story.
Ketchup packets, of all things, first alerted Mark that something was going haywire. Suddenly he couldn't make his fingers tear them open.
This was in Houston in early 1997. Mark was a regional manager for Taco Bell. Cheryl was the fitness director at an exercise center. They were planning a November wedding.
The awful ALS diagnosis came in late May. They married a week later. "Because I love him," Cheryl said, simply enough.
Mark needed to immediately begin some experimental drugs – medicine that could be harmful to a pregnancy. "But we had wanted to have children," Cheryl said. "The doctor said, 'You have one month.' "
Mark gave me a sly grin when I turned to congratulate him on his virility. I had already heard they are parents of an 11-year-old son.
To better fight the coming paralysis, Mark and Cheryl moved to Carrollton and consolidated households with his parents.
Cheryl has been Mark's nearly sole caregiver from the start.
Mark can mouth a few words. Other words he blinks out, stopping Cheryl as she recites the alphabet.
"Most people have caregivers they do not know," Mark said. "It is better to have someone who loves you."
He smiled and cut his eyes toward Cheryl. "Aww," she said, giving him a tender pat.
Partly for the money, partly for her own health and sanity, Cheryl began leading fitness classes again. But Mark didn't like being left behind.
So contrary to my qualms about a paralyzed guy in an exercise class, Mark loves tagging along.
"I don't care what people think," he blinked. "It is better than being home in bed."
As it turns out, Cheryl's energetic style and Mark's quiet presence have made her classes very popular.
Several people in the spin class told me the same thing as Monday's session ended:
Cheryl works them. Mark inspires them.