Exercising helps woman with multiple sclerosis lose 275 pounds

Looking at old pictures, Pegi Bricker said she doesn’t recognize herself.

Everywhere she went, she felt like everyone was looking at her because she was overweight.

When she went to a movie theater, she didn’t know if a handicap seat would be available so she could fit into it.

She couldn’t fly on an airplane because even seat belt extenders didn’t help her fit into a seat, and she had to use the extenders in her van and car.

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All the while, she also was dealing with multiple sclerosis, an immune-mediated process in which an abnormal response of the body’s immune system is directed against the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves, according to nationalmssociety.org.

She struggled to walk and drive. She had to use a wheelchair or a cane and take public transportation to go places. She also was in the hospital a lot.

After going up and down with her weight, she’s now happy where she’s at. As of today, she has lost 275 pounds.

She has been able to keep the weight off in the past six years by walking with her dog and grandchildren and going to the gym on a daily basis.

“I don’t miss a day,” the 57-year-old said, noting when she works out at Anytime Fitness in Seymour, she goes at it hard for the two to five hours she is there.

What finally helped her stay focused on keeping the weight off?

“It’s got to be God. It’s got to be a miracle,” she said, considering her age and weight at the time and having an incurable condition. “God never let go of me. He kept saying, ‘You can do this. I’ve got this. We’ve got this together. We can do it. I know where you’re going. I’ve been there already.’”

She also credits her husband, Clarence Bricker, and granddaughters, Alejandra, 6, and Diana, 3.

“He is a hunk, a hunk of burning love,” she said of Clarence, smiling. “He is awesome. We’ve been married 31 years. Through thick and thin, he has been with me, he has supported me, he has taken care of me, he has sat by my bedside. It just means everything to have the support of my husband.”

With their daughter working long hours, the Brickers often have their granddaughters at their home.

“She keeps me young,” Pegi said while watching Diana play in the living room. “She gives me a reason to get up in the morning.”

The trainers at Anytime Fitness have made an impact, too.

“It’s the best gym in town,” Bricker said. “They are so friendly, kind and very accommodating because I have MS and I can’t get hot when I exercise, so they always make sure I have a fan.”

Credit also is given to her dog, Cocoa. She got the chihuahua-min pin mix six years ago from Red Sky Rescue in Medora, and he has been her walking partner ever since.

“I wanted a companion that I could walk with, so I thought, ‘Well, you know, I’m doing real good, I’m starting to lose weight. We need to get a dog,’” she said.

When she went to Red Sky Rescue with a friend, she said Cocoa started following her around with his eyes. She wound up taking him home that day.

“Everywhere we go, we take him with us,” she said.

Initially, she and Cocoa walked 5 miles a day. Now, they walk at least 2 miles a day, often using the Crossroads Community Trails in the city.

“The bike paths and walking paths are wonderful,” she said. “I’m so happy that they are doing that and expanding it.”

Finally, fellow members of Cornerstone Community Church in Seymour have always supported the Brickers. They even built a ramp in front of their house because Pegi struggled to walk up the stairs.

“My church has always supported us, helped me, helped with anything we’ve needed,” she said. “Cornerstone is awesome. I couldn’t do it without my friends there.”

Bricker said she got up to 450 pounds because she was home all of the time homeschooling her children and she loved to cook homemade food.

“I was just cooking a lot and eating a lot,” she said. “It wasn’t because I was sick. It was because I was just fat. I just ate too much.”

Carrying around that extra weight, she said her feet and back hurt all of the time, and she was always exhausted.

“When you lay in your own waste, when you can’t walk and your husband has to help you put your bra on, you take everything for granted at that point,” she said. “I just didn’t know what I was doing to myself, and God said, ‘You’ve got to make a change.’”

The stress brought out the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, she said. The neurological disorder eats away at the spinal column and brain, and it affects everyone differently, she said.

She went to see a chiropractor, and he said he couldn’t adjust her because he thought she had multiple sclerosis.

An MRI and a spinal tap showed she had a 4-inch lesion on her spine. She had trouble walking, was wheelchair-bound and had to take Seymour Transit to go places.

“I was very, very active. Even though I weighed 450 pounds, I was extremely active. I was homeschooling my children. I was extremely active at Cornerstone. I was just all of the time doing stuff,” she said.

“Then I got to where I couldn’t walk,” she said. “I couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. It was awful. I wasn’t ever hospital-bound, but I was in the hospital a lot.”

Bricker also had dementia and couldn’t drive, and a specialist told her she had early onset Alzheimer’s disease, so she was put on medication.

“The MS was causing a mimic of that disease,” she said. “When someone says, ‘You’ve got early onset Alzheimer’s disease,’ … it was scary. It terrified me.”

To add to her troubles, Bricker learned she had high blood pressure and diabetes.

“I went from doing things with my kids — I was still heavy but active — to not being able to do anything,” Bricker said. “It was hard. I was scared.”

Jill Whitaker, a dietitian at Schneck Medical Center in Seymour, took Bricker under her wing to lose weight.

Bricker went there to be weighed every two weeks. She, however, couldn’t use a regular scale. She had to be taken to a scale used to weigh freight.

She wound up losing 100 pounds on her own, but she gained it all back and then some.

She then contacted Dr. David Lee at Columbus Regional Health Bariatric Center to have the Roux-en-Y gastric bariatric surgery. That involves creating a small pouch from the stomach and connecting the newly created pouch directly to the small intestine, according to mayoclinic.org.

“Insurance immediately took care of me because I knew I was going to wind up in a nursing home and my husband couldn’t take care of me,” she said. “He was struggling to lift me and help me. At 450 pounds, you can’t do it.”

Again, she lost 100 pounds, but she gained it back.

“It was effective,” she said of the surgery, “but I wasn’t getting the exercise I needed.”

That’s when she got Cocoa and started to walk and go to the gym. Finally, she was able to keep the weight off.

Now, she no longer has high blood pressure or diabetes. She has been on a new medicine for multiple sclerosis for three years and takes a steroid if she has a flareup, and she goes to a neurologist every six months.

She has some trouble with her bones and occasionally uses a wheelchair, but she can walk, drive and move around better than she did in the past.

She carries the old pictures of herself to use as motivation and also to inspire others.

“My mantra is ‘Never give up, just never give up,’” she said. “Sure, there are going to be some things happen. The MS may flare up, but never take anything for granted. People that can see, people that can function in their mind without dementia, driving — you can’t take that for granted because it could be gone tomorrow.”

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Name: Pegi Bricker

Age: 57

Hometown: Greencastle

Residence: Seymour

Occupation: Nurse and homemaker

Family: Husband, Clarence Bricker; son, Joseph Bricker; daughter, Karen Bricker; granddaughters, Alejandra, 6, and Diana, 3