Up close and personal

  • Health
  • Sunday, 25 May 2003


SHAHIMAH Idris wants to walk again and she’s taking it sitting down, lying down or in any position her Pilates instructor puts her in. But at least here she’s in control. 

“I hate uncertainty. I can’t take uncertainty,” she said. “But sometimes God throws bad stuff at you.”  

Her “bad stuff” was an attack that would have broken the strongest of women. In 1997, Shahimah was stabbed in the back in a basement car park. The knife severed her spinal cord and the subsequent fall drove the knife deeper into her back, breaking several of her vertebrae.  

Shahimah was lucky. She was rushed to the hospital and an emergency surgery saved her life. Her doctors also stuck a titanium rod into her back to hold her vertebrae in place. She was paralysed from the waist and her doctors told her and her family that she would never walk again.  

Three weeks after the surgery, Shahimah began physiotherapy. She felt uncomfortable from the start. “I didn’t like what the therapist was doing because I felt I didn’t have control over my body,” she said.  

Pilates, which works on the whole body system, has helped Shahimah tremendously.

After a couple of sessions, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She demanded that her personal trainers, who had worked with her before the accident, be allowed to work on her therapy, supervised by the hospital’s physiotherapists.  

From then on, Shahimah would defy conventional wisdom and work with therapists she was comfortable with.  

The most powerful part of Shahimah’s body was her mind, which she co-opted in her healing. She practically willed herself to walk again at the beginning of 2000. By October of the same year, she no longer used a wheelchair. She was walking again, albeit with the aid of two walking sticks. Her doctors declared her a “walking miracle.” (No pun intended.) 

Early this year, a chance visit to the Energy Day Spa at the Great Eastern Mall in Kuala Lumpur led her to the next stage of her rehabilitation. The spa has a Pilates studio and Shahimah had heard about Pilates from her trainers, who touted its effects on the abs and back. “My only expectation of Pilates then was that it would strengthen my abs and my back,” she said. 

She met Kathleen Keller, the Pilates trainer and instructor at the Body Logic Studio, and blurted everything out – her accident, her injuries, her experiences. It had been six years since the accident.  

Keller found Shahimah both scary and challenging. “I’ve never worked with anyone who got stabbed in the back and frankly, my main concern was that I would hurt her further,” she said. 

But Shahimah’s enthusiasm and determination were infectious. The pair had their work cut out for them. Shahimah’s body had several problems. Her pelvic was tilting forward and she had restricted movement in her hips. “I felt like my butt was up at my ears and I didn’t feel like my body was in a natural position,” said Shahimah.  

In addition, her right foot “dropped” and dragged along when she walked, giving her a lop-sided gait. One of her legs was twisted from the hip and her toes were all scrunched up over one another. As is usual for people with serious injuries, Shahimah’s body was tight all over and as Keller puts it, “crying out for stretch.”  

Everything they did seemed to help. From the very basic Pilates breathing, Shahimah has learned to “connect” with her deep stomach and pelvic muscles. Feeling, or in her case, sensing the movements, positions and parts of the body involved, was important as Shahimah was unable to feel parts of her lower body due to her injury.  

In only eight sessions, the duo covered a lot of ground. There were routines on the Cadillac, the reformer and a technique called “body-rolling” which Keller used to stretch and lengthen Shahimah’s curled up toes. “Kathleen’s always thinking of new things for me to do,” said Shahimah.  

One of the “new things” was using the dividers women used to separate their toes when they paint their toe nails. “Put them on when you sleep. You’ll see your toes separating more,” said Keller. 

The pair has progressed since their early sessions. From the basics of breathing, finding connection with abs and back muscles, Keller is now going on to correcting Shahimah’s problems in her hips, legs and feet – finding connections, improving balance, keeping her grounded, stretching, lengthening, realigning.  

Occasionally there were more surprises. After a couple of sessions, Shahimah recalled, “I remember saying, ‘Kathleen, I forgot to tell you I’ve got a titanium rod in my back!’”  

Keller said they both stared at each other in horror and shock. Shahimah had been performing roll-downs to stretch her back despite the rods in her back. I think we’ve bent the rods,” said Keller matter-of factly. 

With stronger abdominal, back and pelvic muscles, Shahimah was able to do shoulder raises and bicep curls standing unassisted for the first time since the accident.  

In addition to her improved posture and gait, Shahimah also noticed that stronger pelvic muscles have contributed to better bladder control. “It used to be when I had to go, I had to go. I don’t care if we were in a middle of a conversation, I had to run!” said Shahimah.  

Keller credits Shahimah’s dramatic progress with her commitment to home practise as well. “We wouldn’t have gone this far in eight sessions if she didn’t go home and practised,” said Keller.  

Pilates worked for Shahimah because it engaged her mind actively in her therapy. It also gave her greater awareness and control over her body. “People ask me if Pilates makes you sweat. It sure does – it makes the mind sweat,” she said. 

In addition, Pilates’ emphasis on breaking down movements to retrain the body into doing things right helps her correct her movements and posture during normal every day movements. 

Today Shahimah is taking things one step at a time. Still, as she walks out at the end of her session supported on walking sticks, it does seem possible that she would be walking out without her sticks very soon. 

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