Enjoying the Exercise, Part 1: Brain tumor survivor cross-trains to aid recovery, improve health

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Carolyn Viss
  • JBPHH Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part fitness feature series.

Carmen knew what to expect going into her second brain surgery. She'd been on the operating table before when the doctors first found a mass on the left side of her brain, around her temple, and when an aneurysm that -- thankfully -- hadn't burst was removed.

This second surgery was required to not only remove a tumor re-growth but also repair Carmen's skull, which hadn't fused properly after the first surgery. The muscles over her temple had atrophied, causing a huge dent in the side of her face. The slightest pressure on that portion of her head -- even what little it took to wear her uniform cover or brush her hair -- caused pain, because the brain was basically only covered by a layer of skin.

The difference was, this time she was ready. She was ready for the pain, ready for the stitches, but most of all she was ready for the recovery. She had been cross-training for more than a year, and felt great going into surgery.

"I was really surprised, though," said Tech. Sgt. Carmen Colon-Alemany, a Hawaii Air National Guardsman with the 154th Medical Group. "Last time, from beginning to end, I was on a profile for a year and a half."

After just two months recovery time, Carmen was able to get back in the gym at CrossFit Oahu and began working out again -- a modified set of exercises, of course, but cross-training nonetheless. As a health services management technician for the 154th MDG and a prior active-duty management technician in the aeromedical evacuation career field, Sergeant Colon was not new to the medical career field - but she didn't expect such a drastic difference in her recovery times from when she had her first surgery, in 2004, to her most recent surgery in September 2009.

Prior to her first surgery, Sergeant Colon had failed her physical fitness test and gotten into running as a "fix." She passed the re-test by a small margin and kept running, doing about three miles a night to keep up her abilities.

"I was thin," she recalled, but she still lacked what she refers to as "fitness."

She got into CrossFit after her husband, Tech. Sgt. Isaiah "Ike" Murray Jr., a loadmaster with the 535th Airlift Squadron, got back from his first workout at CFO with his friend and fellow loadmaster. Ike came back totally exhausted and exhilarated, and Sergeant Colon couldn't resist her curiosity as to what kind of workout made her husband work out so hard. Once she did one workout, she was hooked.

Every year since then, Sergeant Colon has gotten a 90 or higher on her PT test, and she's even gotten her 13-year-old son, Amir, into the workouts.

CrossFit not only reshaped her body (she can now do pushups and even pull-ups with ease and has muscle tone to prove it) -- it's reshaped her life, she said. Throughout the short recovery time of her second surgery, her CrossFit "family" was cheering for her and encouraging her, the way they do to get her through the toughest "Workout of the Day" at the gym. Her first day back was a huge triumph.

"There's a great sense of community there," said Carmen, who completed the 2009 Great Aloha Run with ease, even though she rarely runs, and no longer needs to drag herself in and out of the gym. "Everyone is family."

And even though she doesn't do it because of any Air Force prescription, she said it definitely benefits her as a military person as well.

"I love the way it makes me feel," she said. "As a female, it makes me feel empowered. It makes me feel like I'm in good shape. Really, you could stick me in a tactical environment, and I can carry the flak vest, I can carry the web belt and all my gear, I can get down and crawl around and do anything else they might have me do. I really feel my physical fitness has contributed to my overall health. With having three kids and a husband, it's not just me I have to think about. After I saw how fast I recovered from my second surgery ... it was a reality check. I feel great."

As she pursues a commission in the coming year, Sergeant Colon knows she can get through anything without being "laid up" like she was during her first surgery.

She does it for the health of it.