My Happy Place
And the journey that brought me here.
By Christine Togni
I am writing this on the day I celebrate my 72nd birthday. You have heard the expression, “better late than never”. That certainly applies to me! My desire to teach water and land-based exercise classes was not something I thought about doing in my 20s or 30s. I was busy raising a family and, to be honest, I got enough exercise running after three little children. Or so I thought!
REWIND to 1992
This is when I first began noticing weakness in my arms, extreme pain, and the inability to hold anything in my hand without dropping it. Numbness was setting in, as well. After many doctor appointments and testing, I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, stenosis, and bone spurs. I was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I began with a conservative plan of treatment. However, physical therapy did not correct my condition and only gave me temporary relief.
I was informed by my neurosurgeon that if I did not have surgery, I would completely lose the use of my arms. This was not happening to me! I had children and, hopefully, someday grandchildren I wanted to hug! I scheduled surgery for the fall of 1993; I was 43 years old. I distinctly remember the neurosurgeon asking me when I would like the surgery, and I said “yesterday”! I was ready to become “whole” again and regain some normalcy in my life.
My surgery was very successful. Three discs in my neck were surgically removed and replaced with cadaver bone. I would need to wear a hard plastic and very uncomfortable neck brace for 12 weeks. I also was not allowed to drive during this time, nor was I allowed to move my head. “Look straight ahead” was my mantra. In February 1994, the brace was removed, my discs were all in alignment, and I was allowed to resume most activities with some modification. The neck brace had become my security blanket, and when removed, I felt like a bobblehead! I had lost all muscle tone in my neck and much of my upper body. When I asked what post-op PT would be needed, it was suggested that I find an aquatics class that offered gentle-movement exercises. It was suggested I call the Arthritis Foundation. Here is where my happy dance begins!
I was directed to a fitness facility that offered Arthritis Aquatics classes, which I attended 2-3 times weekly. I do remember the quizzical stares I received when I walked into class that first day. I was 44, and most of the other participants were in their 70s, 80s, and yes, 90s! I remember being touched by the support and kindness they showed one another. Soon, that support and kindness was showered upon me, and my heart was filled with joy! This was more than an exercise class; it was a group of caring individuals who derived the benefits of physical movement but also emotional support. I found myself anticipating each new class and spending time with people who would be my life-long friends.
When I returned to my neurosurgeon some weeks later (while still attending the aquatics classes), he gave me a clean bill of health and attributed it to my dedication of faithfully attending these classes. He said I no longer needed to participate in water exercise unless I wanted to because I had achieved the goals he had set. I had mixed emotions! I was grateful for the progress I had made, but I was not ready to part ways and say good-bye to this wonderful group of people who were now my good friends. I contacted the Arthritis Foundation to see what qualifications were needed to get trained to teach these vital classes. However, I also had another difficult decision to make. I was working for a wonderful organization and enjoyed the variety and challenge of my responsibilities. Do I leave a secure job and one I love for an unknown future as a fitness instructor?
After many family discussions, research, and prayer, I decided to pursue this career change and became trained through the Arthritis Foundation to teach these amazing classes and pay it forward. I felt it was my calling to offer this program to the many individuals who live with arthritis, fibromyalgia, and related conditions. I took the training in 1995 and became an Arthritis Foundation Program Leader. It was one of the best decisions of my life. So, I went from class participant to class leader. I would soon be the instructor of the class I presently attended. I felt blessed!
I continued teaching at this facility until it closed. However, I was able to bring my training to four more facilities that did not currently offer arthritis aquatics classes. I was grateful for this opportunity! Ten years later, classes were full, and I could not have been happier.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
But, in 2006, I hit a bump that stopped me in my tracks. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I assumed my teaching days were over. When I announced this devastating news to my classes, participants shared a group hug with me. Tears were in our eyes as I told them I would probably be handing in my resignation. Not so fast!
Surgery, 35 radiation treatments, and 5 years of Tamoxifen did not stop me! I was not allowed in the water post-op, and the radiation treatments made me feel like a zombie. However, I did continue teaching by sitting on a chair next to the pool while verbally cueing and even demonstrating some exercises. It was a win-win; my class members had become my extended family.
My most recent setback in July 2021 as being diagnosed with COVID-19. My husband also tested positive the same day. This came as a total shock as we were fully vaccinated. We experienced many of the symptoms including debilitating fatigue and weakness. However, we were fortunate not to have been hospitalized. Three weeks later, I was back teaching. It was wonderful being in the water again, and I truly believe it helped me regain some of my strength.
I currently teach a combination of seven water classes (Cardio Water Aerobics and Arthritis Aquatics) weekly at the Harcum Fitness and Aquatic Center in Reynoldsburg, OH. As I enter my 27th year of teaching, I want to encourage other fitness instructors to never give up, even when those bumps in the road may seem more like boulders. As you support your classes physically, emotionally, and mentally, this support will come back to you tenfold. Your classes need you, and you need them. You are all connected.
My husband shared a quote that reminded him of me: “To love what you do and feel that it matters, how could anything be more fun?” - Katharine Graham (deceased), Washington Post
Christine Togni is certified through the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA) and initially certified through the Arthritis Foundation. Christine has been very active with the Arthritis Foundation and has written magazine and newspaper articles on their behalf. She has spoken at many different organizations including the Reynoldsburg Rotary Club, the Ohio State Women Legislators, and The Ohio State University. She also serves as an Arthritis Foundation Peer Support Volunteer. She is a State Advocate for the Arthritis Foundation as well as a National Advocate. She has attended the Advocacy Summit in Washington DC several times and has met with many legislators on Capitol Hill to lobby for funding and passage of health bills related to Arthritis. In 2018, she was chosen to be the Adult Honoree in the Jingle Bell Run Walk/Race held each December in Columbus, OH.