Getting Back on My Feet and Dancing

Left: Ralph Wittenberg during one of his personal training sessions with Mint Fitness instructor Sean O'Brien. Right: Wittenberg with O'Brien and Mint owner Patrick John. Photographs courtesy of Mint.

Four months ago, I was on oxygen. I was discharged from the hospital and sent to my beautiful house, though the doctors said it couldn’t work because of its two flights of stairs. 

For the first four weeks, I received physical and occupational therapy from a Medicare provider. I could go up and down stairs one step at a time, but I struggled to catch my breath. I started walking outdoors using a walker. At first, I could go half a block and back slowly, stopping several times along the way. Then I graduated to using a cane. After a couple of weeks, I could go from one end of the block to the other. 

I did a set of exercises prescribed by my therapists to focus on strengthening my neck and shoulders, which had become very weak during my prolonged hospitalization. And then my benefits ran out.

Lance, my great friend and personal trainer from MINT (mentioned here), realized that I was going to need a lot more help to get back on my feet. He put out a call to a group of MINT trainers and physical therapists, and they came to my home to help me out. They were all so kind and loving, and they started me on a number of routines that brought me increasing strength.

About two months ago, I was able to walk from my house to MINT and begin a training routine. I decided that I would go there every day–I would work on a book and practice my guitar and folk singing every day as well. When I first tried the mostly uphill walk, I had to stop a number of times to catch my breath. But I got the warmest welcome from everybody when I walked in–Patrick and Melissa John, the owners, plus many of the trainers, other club members and members of the staff. They made me feel that just getting there was a great accomplishment.

For many years at the gym, I had a number of routines. I would start with warm ups and stretches, then do several of the machines at very low weights. After my hospital stay, the personal trainers were reserving an hour of time every week so that I could continue to strengthen my neck and shoulders and expand my repertoire of exercises.

One of my goals was to be able to get up and down on the exercise mat alone, which was very difficult because my legs were so weak. This was important because I wanted to start doing yoga, but I knew that before I could do that, I would have to be able to get onto the ground and back up and also sit unsupported. The trainers gave me specific exercises to help me to do that.

I was very happy to notice small but steady improvements. About a month ago, I started using the treadmill and the stationary bike to strengthen my heart. I’ve gradually increased the level of strenuousness.

MINT has been a great place for me to heal because it has a wonderful atmosphere. The lights are low, there is no major grunting and groaning and dropping of weights, and the background music is amazingly varied and not raucous. I found that sometimes, I could do exercises in time with the music, and I thought of myself as dancing.

There are a whole host of classes available to members there, too, such as yoga, spinning, Pilates, and Zumba. I sort of dreamed of taking a Zumba class to keep my dancing going, but  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it. So, over the Thanksgiving holiday, I approached the Zumba teacher and asked whether she thought I could participate in her class. She couldn’t have been nicer. She reassured me that I didn’t have to worry about my performance and that I could do it for however long worked for me. 

Because of the holiday schedule, I was able to take three classes in a row. I lasted ten minutes the first session. The next time, I was able to do 20. The third time,I could do 40. And at the beginning of this week, I completed a sixty minute class. I got a high five from the teacher, and she asked the other twenty to thirty women to give me a hand for being brave enough to be the only man in the class.

I decided I was doing it because I love the dancing. The routines are complicated and, at times, very challenging.  When I look discouraged by my performance, other members of the group reassure me that it’s taken years for them to learn the routines, so I needn’t worry. What a nice bunch of people! In fact, that’s been the most wonderful part of my recent experience at the gym. Everyone I come into contact with is warm, kind and friendly. I feel like it’s a wonderful second home.

I don’t have any trouble getting there and back now; I can walk up a steep hill for about a quarter-mile without stopping (I also sometimes use public transportation). And none of this would’ve been possible if the loving people at MINT hadn’t stepped in. How lucky can a guy be?!

78 year-old Ralph Wittenberg was named a Washingtonian Health Hero last year. Check out the backstory on his health challenges, life changes, and recovery here.