- Associated Press - Saturday, April 29, 2017

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (AP) - In the midst of an emotional slump, Lisa Baray experienced the power of human connection when she made a phone call to a complete stranger.

“It’s so relieving when you talk to people about certain situations and they can say, ‘Oh, I know!’ or ‘I’ve been there,” Baray said. “It’s so nice to just have people who have that same feeling toward you as you have toward them.”

Baray was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis “at the ripe old age of 20,” she said. That was 23 years ago. Her disease hadn’t caught up to her until a few years ago when she was finally confined to a wheelchair.

The devastating nervous system disease wasn’t just attacking her body. It began to drown her mind.

“It pulls you down to just be stripped of all the things you lived with and know in life,” she said. “You don’t die from MS. You die with it.”

Through a network of caring people, Baray was given longtime MS patient Anne Corbin Martin’s phone number. They talked for two hours even though they had never met. Corbin Martin, also in a wheelchair, shared her experiences and frustrations with the disease and lifted Baray from her slump.

“I loved it. I just thought it was good that I was helping somebody possibly,” Corbin Martin said. “When you want to be able to work and do things, you’re very frustrated, just like everybody else when you can’t get out and do the things you used to be able to do.”

It was Baray’s water aerobics instructor, Ruth Kirk, who contacted Disability Action Center to connect Baray with someone who could share her troubles. Corbin Martin was diagnosed in 1992 and knew exactly what Baray was going through. The two only began their friendship a month or so ago, but it seems like they’ve known each other much longer.

“It feels like the more we talk, the more comes out that is so similar,” Baray said. “It makes it better and better.”

“And it’s so nice knowing I’m not the only one that forgets things,” Corbin Martin said with a chuckle. “In two seconds you can forget things. It’s nuts.”

This friendship is just one beautiful thing that has blossomed from Kirk’s Aqua Med aerobics class and the community that has gathered around it. Corbin Martin isn’t enrolled in the class, but now she’s a part of the water aerobics family and a part of this MS community.

“I just think it’s awesome,” said Kirk, who has had MS for 15 years. “This is community at its best.”

Kirk said when she first put the class together more than three years ago, she had to evaluate whether she was ready “to see my disease in its worst.”

“I went in hopeful that I could make a difference, and I feel like we have,” Kirk said. “And it’s not just me; it’s everybody who comes to the class. They are so welcoming and open-arms to anybody else.”

“We have grown such a bond between all of us,” Baray said.

Each Monday and Wednesday, people with MS and other disabilities gather in the cool 80-degree pool of the Kroc Center to spend an hour with Kirk. The water makes it possible for those who can’t really balance or stand on land to have more control.

Kirk said the water “acts as a hug.”

“You’re not afraid to fall because you fall into the water, which catches you so softly,” Baray said.

Kirk said it’s tough when she sees a participant’s health decline, but more often the water improves their conditions. Baray is one example of how the water exercise is helping - she’s close to walking again after nearly a year in the class.

Lisa’s story is the most compelling with how she’s improved with her core strength and she’s now ready to get out of that wheelchair and into a walker,” Kirk said. “As soon as we can get her a walker, she’s ready to go.”

Aqua Med participant Sara Andre has also had MS for several years and has been in Kirk’s class for a year and a half. She’s proactive in helping other participants get to class and letting them know they’re not alone.

“We’re all in the same boat,” Andre said. “We’re all one lesion away from being very disabled. It’s all in where it attacks you.”

Kirk said about 30 people rotate through the classes, but she wants to see more of the 300 or so MS patients who live in Kootenai County.

“I’d love more people to know about it because they just don’t get how beneficial it is for their bodies,” she said.

Combined with the physical benefits of Kirk’s class, the friendships and positivity shared by her students help keep their outlooks buoyant as they combat this oftentimes debilitating and unpredictable disease.

“I come for the classes and I come for the camaraderie, the sharing, the friendship, the support,” Andre said. “This is my tribe.”

“We check in on each other. If we’re having a bad day, we’ll call each other. If somebody’s really having a tough time, we’ll pull out a group text and the next day we’re meeting for lunch,” Kirk said. “We’ve all been through so much together.”

Kroc classes require memberships, but scholarships are available. Kirk said the classes will expand to three days a week in June.

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Information from: Coeur d’Alene Press, https://www.cdapress.com


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