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Published on September 24, 2020

Mary Beth Farley

Ataxia Affects Mary Beth’s Mobility, but Not Her Hope

Mary Beth Farley’s personality and positivity shine bright, even though her balance and gait have slowly declined since an ataxia diagnosis of spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA) in 2012. At the time, she was living in Minnesota and planning to move to Sioux Falls, so she needed an expert team to help her manage her condition. Farley is a woman of faith, so receiving care at Avera made sense.

Through her own research, Farley chose Lisa Viola, DO, neurologist of Avera Medical Group Neurology, as her physician. “Ataxia is a rare condition, and rarely talked about, so when I heard Dr. Viola mention it in her online video, I knew I wanted to go to her,” Farley said.

What Is Ataxia?

According to the National Ataxia Foundation, ataxia is defined as a degenerative disease of the nervous system. The cerebellum, located at the back of the brain, is damaged either physically or genetically. This causes misfirings between the nerves when the brain tries to communicate a movement to the muscles.

There are several types of ataxia, and people experience symptoms differently.

“Some people experience gait and coordination changes, others have difficulty with speech and emotions,” said Viola. “One scary thing about the misfirings between nerves is that a person might think they moved their leg, but didn’t, which could result in a fall.”

An Ataxia-Friendly Lifestyle

Farley’s condition has slowly hindered her ability to walk and stand. She understands there’s no cure, but because of a healthy diet and regular exercise, Farley lives independently and still enjoys serving at church and tutoring students. If a person does nothing, it could cost them their mobility.

Viola referred Farley to Avera Therapy to help treat the ataxia symptoms. Her physical therapist, Matt Leedom, DPT, developed a plan to increase her strength, flexibility and endurance.

“I walk straight lines and go up and down stairs to help my balance,” explained Farley. “I will also practice bending over and picking things up from the floor and stretch using bands.”

At her request, Leedom referred Farley to water therapy at the Johnson Aquatic Center on the Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center campus. Aquatherapy added an extra challenge to improve her coordination and muscle control.

Even though she still needs the assistance of a walker, her consistent efforts have paid off. She notices the effects on daily activities such as washing dishes or brushing her teeth, “I can actually stand longer now than what I use to,” she said.

Part of her personal care includes treating herself with a massage from Avera Medical Group Integrative Medicine . As complementary medicine to physical and aquatic therapy, massage therapy further relaxes her muscles and prevents stiffness.

Bringing the Ataxia Community Together

When Farley met Viola, she learned that a support group for ataxia didn’t exist in South Dakota. She felt called to create and lead the Sioux Empire Ataxia Group. They keep in touch to share victories and setbacks, create fundraisers, and participate in an annual awareness event.

“We often tell ourselves, ‘I may have ataxia, but ataxia doesn’t have me,’” said Farley. The formation of the group has been a proud moment for her. “A lot of people don’t know what ataxia is, so it’s a good way to share what it is with others.”

Others matter in the life of a person diagnosed with ataxia. Farley leans on her family, friends and faith in God for not only help outside of health care, but also for support and encouragement. And the interesting thing is, family and friends lean on her for a positive word in return.

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