By Steven Mark
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 11, 2015
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DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
Margaret Tom, 86, has practiced tai chi for four years.
TAI CHI sessions mean a lot more than fitness to Margaret Tom.
“Tai chi saved my life,” said Tom, an 86-year-old English and social studies teacher who retired from ‘Iolani School in 1991.
“It was the movement and what each movement meant. It looked easy but it isn’t. That was the other thing: You have to focus, you have to think.”
Former teacher, explaining why tai chi appeals to her
How this all happened is a winding and tortuous tale, like an extended tai chi routine. Tom was an avid swimmer and hiker when she was younger, then turned to tennis after she retired, taking lessons and playing league tennis for many years. She played nearly every day and developed a feisty spirit when competing. “We would try to beat the butt off each other,” she said.
After her tennis partners’ knees began to falter, she returned to swimming. But about five years ago she got interested in tai chi classes that were being offered at her church, Community Church of Honolulu. Many of the senior parishioners there were having physical problems typical for seniors, such as balance problems that led to falls and broken bones.
THE class was taught by Tommy Amina, who organized courses at several local YMCAs. He’s an energetic 76-year-old who has practiced tai chi for 18 years and knows its benefits. He started lessons to deal with stress and to calm his “Type A personality.”
“What we try to do is we try to work on balance,” Amina said. “It’s most important with seniors because they’re always falling. … Many of them enjoy tai chi so much that they can actually feel they’re getting better.”
Coming from her experience with more vigorous exercise, Tom was puzzled by the slow, steady movements of tai chi. But after introductory courses with Amina, she realized tai chi was “martial arts, in slow motion.”
“I got hooked,” she said. “I was fascinated by it. It was completely different from anything I’d done in my entire life. … It was the movement and what each movement meant. It looked easy but it isn’t. That was the other thing: You have to focus, you have to think.”
She went online for videos of tai chi and found routines set to music that she studied diligently. “I drove my husband out of the room. He was just going crazy with that same thing over and over,” she said with a laugh. “But I learned it.”
She began going to tai chi classes three times a week, two hours each day. Amina teaches Yang-style tai chi, which is rooted in eight basic moves that come with such descriptive names as Repulse the Monkey, which essentially looks like a slow baseball windup followed by a push, or Cloud Hands, a series of large circular movements made with the hands and arms. Encouraged by her progress, she got interested in learning routines that required a sword.
But her life changed dramatically last September while driving from her Kapahulu home to a 6 a.m. sword tai chi class. Her Toyota Corolla was T-boned by an SUV.
“I didn’t see him, really, but the SUV, he sped right through a red light and broadsided me,” she said. “My car swerved to the left, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, somebody hit me.’ My windshield blew out. I was happy it blew out rather than in.
“This guy in the second lane jumped out of his car and came running over and said, ‘Are you OK?’ And I said, ‘I think so. I’m just a little sore on my left side.’”
That little soreness turned out to be a broken clavicle, five broken ribs and a punctured and collapsed left lung, along with several bumps and bruises. She remembers feeling little pain at the time, remaining conscious and conversing with emergency personnel, telling them to put away her sword and complaining about the other driver — “that jerk isn’t hurt and I’m hurt,” she recalls telling police — as they cut her out of her car and loaded her into an ambulance for a “terrible” ride to the hospital.
IT WASN’T until she got to the hospital that she realized the extent of her injuries. “They made me walk that first day, and I realized that my legs wouldn’t move,” she said.
She was in the Queen’s Medical Center for two weeks, spending several days in intensive care on oxygen, letting her bones heal. She then spent two more weeks at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, recovering from a trauma to a muscle in her lower back — “right under my butt,” she said with a laugh. Walking was excruciatingly painful.
That’s when tai chi training saved her life.
Unable to stride normally, she had to do the tai chi walk — a deliberate stride that puts emphasis on placing your foot slowly down on your heel, then pivoting your foot outward for balance before transferring one’s full weight onto your foot.
“That was the only way I could keep my balance,” she said.
Physical therapy continued for another two months after she returned home. In December, three months after her accident, Tom returned to tai chi classes.
“Beginning of February, my body felt tight, my muscles, and I would get tired,” said Tom. “I wanted to do some things around the house, but I couldn’t because I felt so tired. But just going to tai chi — by that time I was able to do 90 minutes, and then that increased to two hours — all of a sudden I just felt better.”
Her experience is not unusual. A document from Harvard Health Publications, from the Harvard Medical School, said a number of studies have found tai chi complements standard medical treatments for both the prevention and rehabilitation of injuries common in seniors.
TOM never underwent surgery on her broken bones, which reverted back into position and healed, or on her punctured lung, which also healed on its own. She believes tai chi helped her endure the initial trauma and sped up her recovery.
“Because of tai chi I was in top shape,” she said. “Tai chi is really a wonderful exercise. It will help prevent you from getting dementia, because you have to focus, you got to think and you have to move your body, your total body.
“But you have to like it. Some people don’t like those slower movements.”
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