Walking into a new lease of life

Jen Eaton (L) and Robert Horsman have been meeting twice a week to train at the Massey University Sport and Exericse Clinic.  

Being able to walk to and from a certain destination every day is something many of us take for granted, but for Jen Eaton who has been battling the symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) for the past 18 years, it’s become one of her greatest achievements thanks to help of a Massey University student.  

On October 28, Mrs Eaton travelled back to her hometown of Napier to compete in the annual Multiple Steps for MS charity run/walk, but it has been her journey getting there that she is most proud of.

Mrs Eaton’s MS journey began back in the 1990s when she was studying at Massey and started getting a focal migraine causing her to see only half of the person’s face sitting next to her, and by the early 2000s she was experiencing symptoms of double vision quite frequently. 

In 2002 she was officially diagnosed and was told she had relapsing remitting MS. This is a flare-up or worsening of new or existing symptoms, which may or may not fully resolve once in remission. However, due to not meeting the required level of disability on the expanded disability status scale she was not eligible for medication and treatment until 11 years later. 

As a result  she has not been able to drive a car for the past 12 years and her right leg has been severely affected by the symptoms making it difficult to walk or move freely.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, Mrs Eaton met Robert Horsman, a Bachelor of Sport and Exercise (Exercise Prescription major) student, over the phone as part of his third-year practicum arranged by senior lecturer Lynette Hodges.   

Members of the public who suffer from MS, obesity, diabetes and other conditions are able to come to the Massey University Sport and Exercise Clinic and work with third year students to improve their health and fitness  and as a form of rehabilitation.

Initially, Robert says he gave Mrs Eaton functional workouts she could do at home that began to help her move around the house more easily. 

“I had no idea how long we were going to be in lockdown for, so I wanted to make life at home easier for her by helping her to practice getting out of chairs with ease. If she fell, I wanted to be confident that she was strong enough and able to get herself up again,” he says.

Around three months later they were able to meet in person on the Manawatū campus to continue working together in the Sport and Exercise Clinic.

During lockdown she managed to Nordic walk (walking with poles) 130 metres so her first goal was to Nordic walk 500m. Robert set out to give her the right exercises to get her cardio fitness and her strength up to help with her mobility. 

In addition to MS, Mrs Eaton had to overcome an injury to her knee following an earlier fall. 

Robert then prescribed exercises to help improve her knee function and strength as well as her balance as Mrs Eaton’s foot is affected by MS and had begun to act like a claw.

Mrs Eaton found herself scrunching up towels with her toes or sitting cross legged on the chair watching TV massaging the balls of her toes.  As a result of her training, her foot issues have been completely resolved.  

“I use to have massive spasms at night time in my feet and it use to interfere with my sleep but doing these exercises I don’t get them anymore. I also use to get spasms in my legs, but they were stopped with the help of stretching exercises Rob gave me.”

She says she has enjoyed every exercise– even when it’s been hard “it’s been fun.” 

After a few weeks, Robert was able to use the pedometer to track Mrs Eaton’s progress by getting her  to walk for as long as she could, and she achieved 612m on her first attempt. Once she had built more strength up and was able to walk 1km, she decided she wanted to participate in Multiple Steps. 

Race day soon came around and Mrs Eaton proudly completed her 2.5km walk in just 50.22mins. This included an 880m section she walked without a rest.  

“It was really, really fun and it was just such a huge achievement. We found out when we got to the end that we weren’t meant to have walked through the sunken garden, as we had been told by someone that was part of the course, but without the exercises I had done with Robert there was no way I could have walked it as there had an extremely steep entry and exit with stairs on one side.” 

Mrs Eaton says she now feels stronger both physically and mentally and the possibilities of what she can achieve are endless.

It was a proud moment that both Mrs Eaton and Robert shared and one that concludes their time together with he finishes up his degree at the end of this year. 

He says working with Mrs Eaton has been a massive eye opener and he has been able to see how MS affects individuals in different ways.  

“We take that for granted. This last year has been a massive  eye opener for me to think there are actually people out there that just don’t have the ability to have a good night’s sleep or be able to walk.”  

When Robert first started his degree, he wanted to work with elite athletes and had the intention of going overseas to work with basketball teams in The United States but this year he found himself invested in his work with Mrs Eaton and his ideas shifted. 

“There’s so much more that needs to be done for people with MS or other chronic diseases, like diabetes. This kind of work is much more challenging than anything I’ve done with people before. It’s very rewarding to see the little victories or in this case for Jen the big victories like being able to get up out of a chair at home without struggling or feeling dizzy and improving her sleep.”  

Robert is hoping to return to Massey next year to complete his Master’s degree to continue his work with MS patients and use the research and knowledge that he has gained from his degree to find a way to progress the treatment for MS patients. 

As for Mrs Eaton, she will continue to come to the clinic twice a week to work with third year students from the Bachelor of Sport and Exercise degree. She only wishes that the work these students are involved in was available  when she was first diagnosed as she could have started her rehabilitation early on. 

“It would be phenomenal as it is already amazing now. I used to look at my Nordic walking poles, in my bedroom & get upset because I hadn't Nordic walked since about 2016 & I thought those days were behind me, but now they're not.” 










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