How exercise became my way back to health

Julie Brown, who was left with no feeling or control over her arms or legs 7 years ago after spinal surgery due to a growth on her spine. After intensive rehab and physio, she is now a qualified instructor with the YMCA.
Julie Brown, who was left with no feeling or control over her arms or legs 7 years ago after spinal surgery due to a growth on her spine. After intensive rehab and physio, she is now a qualified instructor with the YMCA.
Have your say

When Julie Brown was 37, she went from leading an active life with a successful career to being unable to even brush her teeth or feed herself.

Now, eight years on, she has become a fitness instructor, teaching a variety of group exercise classes at St Annes YMCA.

Julie’s ordeal started when she started suffered tingling pains and sensations in her arms – with pain so bad, it would take her breath away.

An MRI scan revealed there was a growth at the top of Julie’s spinal chord, and a neurosurgeon at Preston diagnosed the growth as a cavernoma – a cluster of abnormal blood cells, typically found in the brain or spinal chord.

The cavernoma, which often looks like a blackberry, was entwined in her central nervous system and Julie faced two tough options.

The St Annes mum could have the cavernoma removed – with all the risks that would entail – or monitor the growth with the risk it could bleed, leading to the possibility of paralysis or even death.

With two teenage sons and a step-daughter, alongside her successful career as an IT security consultant, she had no option but to have surgery.

Julie, now 45, said: “Looking back, this was the point where my life was about to change. It changed who I was and gave me a different outlook.”

The operation was successful, but Julie lost nerve paths through both arms, leaving her with no feeling and no control over her arms. Areas of her lower legs and abdomen were also affected.

She said: “Overnight, I went from leading a very active life, travelling, socializing, keeping fit, to not being able to brush my own teeth or feed myself.”

Julie began intensive physiotherapy, treated by specialist physiotherapists, who began to help her re-build her brain to hand functions.

“Once home from hospital, I used to make myself walk around the block, and it must have been such a funny sight for people who didn’t know me.

“I was conscious of every single step and with my arms flailing about all over the place, I must have looked very odd.”

Julie was able to get back to work a year later, with the help of her employers and some adaptations to her workspace.

But real life hadn’t quite resumed – this once-very-active woman was now terrified of exercising in public at all.

“I had ventured to a local hotel pool to swim and to help start strengthen my arms, but I could only get in when I was sure I would be one of the only people in there. My body confidence was gone.”

Another year on, Julie bumped into YMCA instructors Jackie Daly and Sue Mann, who encouraged her to “come back and try a bit of Zumba” at the centre on St Albans Road, St Annes.

She said: “I remember worrying about if my body would work and standing at the back of the class. That was four years ago and I haven’t looked back.”

Julie’s confidence kept on growing, and her control and co-ordination improved. She started to push herself more – going for a run, trying different classes, and then in 2013, she put her mettle to the test by completing a 10-mile charity endurance event.

But after taking part in the challenge for a second year, she suffered another setback, in the form of a broken arm.

She said: “The inability to use my arm again for a short time made me think this was possibly a sign I needed to slow down, however it also pushed me to think ‘what are you gonna do now?’”

Julie started to think about aiming for something that would give her real focus.

“I loved my job, but my passion had become about the one thing which pulled me back together.

“I realised I wanted to help motivate and inspire others, just like Sue and Jackie had helped me. They threw me a lifeline and helped me re-build my confidence.”

Julie enrolled on a YMCA Fit Level 2 Exercise to Music course, in April 2015, and after qualifying, became an instructor, teaching spinning, interval training and body conditioning, at YMCA St Annes.

She said: “My life was forced to change, and for the better, and if I can give the thankfulness and positivity I feel back, and help others feel a sense of well-being and personal achievement, then the journey has been worth it.”