VAIL, Colo. — Lying on her stomach on an examination table, Kay Briden, 44, of Minneapolis extended her arms over the edge and tried to lift them.
"I can't do it," the curly-haired blonde told her physical therapist. "That's a zero. On a day when I'm less tired than this in the afternoon, maybe I'd do better."
She turned on her side and raised her lower leg slightly, attempting to touch her upper leg, which the therapist held in the air.
"I can't do it any more than that," said Briden, a former assistant professor at Rutgers University Medical School in Piscataway, N.J. "That's a good effort. I tried hard."
Briden could not perform these routine exercises because she has multiple sclerosis, a disease of the brain and spinal chord that often causes patients to walk or move with difficulty. Symptoms include numbness, peculiar skin sensations, muscle weakness, unusual fatigue, poor coordination, double vision and imperfect bladder control.
However serious, the disease is often in remission and rarely fatal, and Briden and 19 other people with MS flew here recently to learn about the Jimmie Heuga Center and its program, which is based on exercise, diet and positive thinking.
Strength and Flexibility
A bronze-medalist skier in the 1964 Winter Olympics who developed multiple sclerosis six years later, Jimmie Heuga, 42, attempts to keep fit by bicycling, swimming, skiing and performing strength and flexibility exercises.
The 5-foot-5 1/2, 142-pound former athlete, who uses a cane and walks with mild instability, skied 36 days this year before back surgery unrelated to his multiple sclerosis knocked him off the slopes.
Heuga does not contend that his program can cure multiple sclerosis, but he does think that the 250,000 Americans who have the disease can exercise to maintain their unaffected muscles rather than letting them atrophy. He also believes MS patients can strengthen themselves and feel better about their self-image, employment and relationships.
The program's emphasis on exercise contradicts traditional medical advice to rest because fatigue exacerbates the illness. Although the success of his program has not been proven scientifically, the medical community is watching with great interest.
As Briden and others participated in a recent four-day clinic at an athletic club in this skiing community, members of the American Medical Assn. and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society watched and planned a study to test the program's effectiveness.
Heuga devised his program after he and silver medalist Billy Kidd had become the first American men to win Olympic alpine skiing medals. By 1975, Heuga's deteriorating muscles made it impossible for him to run. Uncertain about his future and frustrated by doctors' advice to remain inactive, he retreated to a one-room cottage in Connecticut to consider his future.
"I was terribly frustrated," he said. "I could see people going about their activities and I was unable to go about mine, or at least I didn't have the imagination to do it.
"I decided that the quality of my life is far more important than simply putting in time."
Heuga decided to try bicycling to get his heart moving. He set a goal of five miles a day.
"It was fantastic," he said. "Between falling and getting my elbows skinned, I got so involved in myself and my goals that I started dealing with my own feelings and my anxieties and uncertainties and I, little by little, started feeling good. I realized I was getting healthier."
Next he began walking straight lines, balancing on one foot, walking on his heels and walking up stairs. When traveling interfered with his exercise regimen, Heuga said he felt a void, so he started swimming in hotel pools and found the activity made him feel better.
Deciding to risk skiing again, he began on "the most mundane beginners slopes. (But) it was exciting and thrilling for me. I had lost my coordination and my ability to fall correctly, and there was tremendous fear."
After a year and a half, he was navigating more difficult slopes. In 1980, a ski photographer heard about Heuga's achievement and made a movie about him. One of those who saw it was Dr. Robert J. Slater, vice president of medical and community services for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Soon Heuga was showing the film at chapters around the country.
At a dinner in Vail, he talked with former President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, who have a residence in nearby Beaver Creek. Shortly afterward a local foundation on which Ford serves on the board gave Heuga $10,000 to start his center.
The Program Begins
After leasing his home in Truckee, Calif., Heuga moved into a Vail condominium loaned to him for several months and began developing his program.
He now works seven days a week running a $700,000-a-year program and a staff of seven in a wood-siding building shaped like a ship's prow. Additional staff--doctors, physical therapists and educators--run his clinics.