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How Laura Phillips, RKC Faced Down Death—With a Monumental Recovery…

Laura Phillips With Kettlebells

Dragon Door: How did you first get started with kettlebells?

Laura Phillips: A friend who was already training with kettlebells got me started with them. He was teaching me how to use them, but since we didn’t live in the same town we didn’t see each other very often. I started training on my own with one of Dragon Door’s DVDs. Later, I started taking a class led by an RKC instructor. I soon realized that I needed to fix the muscle memory patterns I had from trying to learn on my own.

Dragon Door: Before our interview, John Du Cane mentioned you've also been involved with martial arts and qigong. Was this before or after you started training with kettlebells?

Laura Phillips: I didn't even tell John this, but in my 20s, I was a karate instructor for five years—and this was back in the 70s, so that was unusual for a woman! More recently, I worked for a qigong company for seven years and trained as a qigong instructor and healer.

Before that, I was pretty athletic with gymnastics in junior high and part of high school, then started with karate in my 20s. Then I had children and they became a priority. I did yoga for quite a few years, and then I found kettlebells and just fell in love with them. I loved everything about kettlebell training and I still feel that way!

Dragon Door: What led you to attend an RKC workshop?

Laura Phillips: I was laid off from a great job that I loved very much at a difficult time in the job market. Kettlebells were the one consistent thing at the time, and I decided that I wanted to train to see if I could pass it. So, I trained pretty heavily for six months to get ready for the RKC certification in 2011. It gave me a focus, goals, and it took my mind off everything else.

After the first day of the RKC, I came home that night and my knees were so swollen that I could barely make it up my front steps. At first I questioned myself, but knew that I really wanted to do it. It was also important for me to show others that age doesn't matter—the limits are just mental. I did it to prove this to myself, my daughters, and anybody else. But, I mainly did it for me. The stereotype about aging is a big myth that needs to busted.

My goal was not to necessarily become an instructor, I really just wanted the big challenge of the test! Even though I have won different awards in the past, earning my RKC is the one thing I feel most proud of. I also may have been the oldest woman there, and it seemed like most of the other people were already trainers or coaches. It was intimidating, but I was very determined to do it.

Dragon Door: What did you do after your RKC?

Laura Phillips: I ended up teaching a little, kept looking for work, and since my daughter was starting a new business, I started helping her. But, in the spring of 2013, some symptoms kept cropping up. I just thought that I was tired or maybe working out too hard. But by June of that year, I knew something was really wrong.

Since I couldn’t get into Mayo until the end of August, I made an appointment with my family doctor. He didn't know what was wrong with me, even though many of my tests came back with results showing something was very wrong. My legs felt really heavy, like I had cement blocks on my feet. They were hard to move and it was getting harder and harder to walk. I was getting weaker.

By the time I went to Mayo, I could no longer stand up straight and needed help walking. It was a big effort to do anything. After many tests at Mayo, they diagnosed me with an autoimmune disease called necrotizing myopathy. It's somewhat of a generic term which meant that my muscles were dying. My body interpreted my muscles as foreign objects and was eating them away very quickly.

Even Mayo didn't know what to do with me. Later I learned that they had nearly hospitalized me because not only were my creatinine levels very high, my liver enzymes were also off the charts. Normal levels are around 35-40, but mine were around 450-500—like someone with chronic alcoholism or hepatitis.

Laura Phillips While SickThey put me on IVIG treatments, which is immunoglobulin from 1,000 blood donations, so it's really expensive, the regimen was $150,000. But, I was so excited to start a treatment because I thought my condition would change. Even when nothing seemed to improve, I remained hopeful and went to Mayo every week for a four hour infusion.

Unfortunately, it wasn't working and I kept losing more and more weight. Thank goodness my organs and heart weren't effected. But, all my skeletal muscles were, and my core muscles were the most destroyed. When I first I went to Mayo, they gave me a cane right way, and eight weeks later I was in a wheelchair. The disease was progressing quickly. I had a hard time swallowing, talking and even standing up.

Someone had to help me stand up, get dressed, and bathe. I couldn't even fully hold my head up. In bed I couldn’t roll over or sit up on my own. I was like a big baby. Other than moving my arms from my elbows down, my feet from side to side, and my head from side to side, I needed someone to help me.

I learned a lot about myself during this time, and it was a very humbling experience. I even needed help getting to the bathroom. Even though we now had handles on the toilet, I would just kind of fall on to the seat, then someone would have to help me stand back up. Luckily, my partner, family, and friends—including my kettlebell instructor who I had become good friends with—helped me through by cooking, cleaning, taking me to appointments, etc. so I didn’t need to go to a nursing home.

When the IVIG treatment wasn't working and because I was losing a lot of weight they started me on a very high dose of intravenous steroids. But even that didn’t really have much of an impact. At Mayo around mid to late November, the doctors told me that they didn't know if they could stop the necrotizing myopathy since it was so aggressive and they hadn't been able to slow it down.

I was actually angry because I felt like they weren't doing their job. They were saying that I would probably either end up bedridden or I would die. Not only did I have a very rare autoimmune disease, it was even more rare for it to be this aggressive. They didn’t know much about it or how to treat it. Most people never recover and end up disabled or dead.

I remember being put back into the car, and my partner buckling the seatbelt for me, because I couldn't even do that myself. I knew I had to find a way to take care of my body. Because of my qigong and yoga background, I had been meditating and working on myself emotionally and mentally the whole time. At this point, I knew that I had to take charge of my body.

I made an appointment with a naturopath in St. Paul. When I first went to Mayo, I had asked for a toxic metal test, but they said I didn't need it. So, I asked the naturopath if she would do the test—and she agreed after asking me tons of questions. The test showed I had high levels of toxic metals including lead and cadmium. So, I did an oral chelation therapy and she put me on mega doses of supplements to support my body healing. The supplements alone cost $2,000 a month, and was a huge amount of pills.

I was also on a strict medical food diet without any foods known to cause inflammation. I wasn’t eating very much already, but was trying to eat as much as I could because I was still losing weight. I continued with the Western treatments even after the chelation because I wanted to try everything possible.

I am really grateful for what Western medicine did for me, and I feel like it did buy me some time. But, I am also really into alternative healing and have preferred alternative medicine for years. My last two IVIG treatments were about a month apart since I was being weaned off of the treatment. Unfortunately, I had a really bad reaction to the last treatment, and I think it was my body trying to say that it no longer needed it.

It took me about five months to recover from the reaction—in just three days I had gained 15 pounds, lost a third of my hair, and my skin hardened, cracked and flaked. I suddenly looked older than my 83 year old mother!

But soon, I started to get better. I could now hold a whole cup of tea, not just half. I still needed someone to help me 24/7 and couldn’t be left alone for more than 1-2 hours. When my partner had to go away on the weekends with the National Guard, our daughter would come and stay with me.

We had a system—my daughter slept downstairs, and we both had our phones nearby. I would call her in the morning when I needed her to help me to the bathroom. Everyday, I tried to see if I could stand up off from the toilet by myself. So, as I was starting to get better, one day I tried it again and I did it! I yelled for my daughter and she came running thinking that something was wrong. But then she saw me standing there and we both started crying. I stood up!

Dragon Door: That is awesome!

Laura Phillips: It was awesome, and soon I could do more—I could open a bottle of juice myself, and put water in the teakettle. My four daughters took very good care of me during this time, even though I knew they were really afraid. My youngest was with me when I first stood up. She was getting married later that year and a few weeks later, she hadn’t told her fiancé that I’d actually learned to walk a little bit on my own again. When he came to visit us, I walked over to him to say hello and he started crying because he was so happy that I could walk again. A few weeks later he asked me to walk him down the aisle with his mom—and I did it.

Healing, especially the subtle part of healing has taken a long time. It took at least another year before I could even start thinking about working out because my stamina just wasn't there. I was gradually walking more, but had to be patient with my body and not push it too far.

Very slowly, I started working out with kettlebells again. At first I just held the lightest one I had—18lbs—then began to add around-the-worlds, then halos, bicep curls. I didn’t do swings for a while since my core muscles didn’t have enough balance yet. I feel like the kettlebells are my friends.

While I was healing and getting stronger, I would sometimes experience PTSD symptoms and would get stopped in my tracks by a memory. When something like this happened when I was training, I was able to observe it and realize that I had something else to heal. But even this is getting so much better too, and while it still happens sometimes, it’s nothing like it was at first.

Now I work out with kettlebells three days a week. I use double 8kg kettlebells, double 10kg, and can use my 12kg for some other lifts too. When I went to Dragon Door and met John, I was picking up another 14kg and 16kg—my goal is to work towards using double 14kg and 16kg soon.

Dragon Door: Wow! That’s excellent progress!

Laura Phillips: I feel so fortunate and grateful. Kettlebells have been the most instrumental thing for getting my strength and balance back. If I had not had the strong developed muscles I had built with kettlebells before I got ill, the outcome most likely would not have been as positive. I'm still working to get my strength back to where it was—and maybe that won’t happen, but I am still working on it and have goals I want to meet. Since I’m going to be 65 this year, I feel really good about all of this!

Dragon Door: What are your favorite kettlebell movements or exercises?

Laura Phillips: The standard swing, because it works everything. I also really like the cleans and presses. Part of the reason I like kettlebell training is that when I am working with them, I have to be aware of what every part of my body is doing. I love how simple and complicated it is at the same time, and it’s a challenge for me.

Dragon Door: You’ve had quite a journey, thanks so much for sharing your story with us.

Laura Phillips: When I was talking to John earlier, I realized how important kettlebells have been, they’ve been my touchstone through being laid off, the illness, and everything. Now, my daughter and granddaughter work out with me. They’re actually just starting working with kettlebells, but they hope to be able to do what I do! That’s great to hear from my 19 year old granddaughter!

LauraPhillipsWithKettlebell thumbnailLaura Phillips, RKC lives in St. Paul, Minnesota