During 13 years of coping with multiple sclerosis, Terri Kubiak has done her best to strike the word can’t from her vocabulary. Whether kayaking on a river or working out, she’s a woman in motion.
Terri Kubiak grew up as an active girl, winning the Torresdale Boys Club Girl of the Year award and playing soccer, basketball and softball at St. Hubert High School.
Kubiak’s good health continued to age 30, when she was enrolled in Community College of Philadelphia’s nursing school.
One day, while serving an internship at Jeanes Hospital, she felt weak and dizzy and became a patient instead of a caregiver.
Soon, doctors had a diagnosis for her sudden weakness and dizziness. She had multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system and often results in speech defects and loss of muscular coordination.
Kubiak spent the next three months in the hospital and, over a three-year period, was in hospitals a total of two years, at times battling temporary paralysis.
For the last decade, she has gotten around in a wheelchair. She doesn’t like the word “can’t”.
“I think about what can I do today,” she said.
Now 43, the Torresdale native lives an independent life. She relies on SEPTA’s paratransit vehicles to take her places, such as the supermarket. She rows and kayaks on the Schuylkill River, went scuba diving on a recent trip to Honduras, and for a long time practiced yoga. She is active with her church, Dignity Philadelphia, performs volunteer work and likes seeing shows at the Walnut Street Theatre.
However, one thing she couldn’t do was walk for a considerable distance. The disease is crippling in several ways.
“It affects my balance, strength and energy,” she said. “My biggest challenge is balance.”
Last November, she learned about It Figures, a women’s fitness center in the shopping center at Grant Avenue and Academy Road.
Although it was quite far from her home in Southwest Philadelphia — a two-hour ride each way on the paratransit van — she took advantage of a seven-day trial membership.
In a polite tone, she told owner Bettylynn Szal, “If I need your help, I’ll let you know.”
The trial membership turned into a full-time membership, and today she works out three times a week, usually Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Szal, who has been in business for nine years, enjoys Kubiak’s presence. The member likes the owner’s hands-on style.
Kubiak enters and leaves the facility with a smile on her face. In between, she mixes exercises that strengthen her abdomen muscles, back, arms and legs. She uses free weights and a stationary bicycle, and does squats using a chair. She can complete an impressive 25 pushups.
“She knows the workout,” Szal said. “She gets right to it, works hard and isn’t afraid to advance.”
Until recently, Kubiak’s biggest accomplishment probably was moving about 200 feet with use of a walker.
That was until two weeks ago, when she summoned enough physical and mental strength to get on a treadmill.
The machine’s speed isn’t important. The key is that Kubiak is putting one foot in front of the other on a moving surface.
“I never dreamed I’d be walking on a treadmill,” she said. “I went seventeen minutes today. I can’t believe it.”
Now, the sky’s the limit.
“I feel stronger than I ever have,” she said. “I want to keep increasing my time and speed. My goal is to run on a treadmill. My dream of running is going to come true.”
Outside the gym, she’d settle for being able to use a walker or, down the road, a cane.
The credit, Kubiak says modestly, goes to the fitness-center owner. She’ll gladly crisscross the city for a good workout.
“It’s so definitely worth it,” she said. “Bettylynn is awesome. I credit Bettylynn way more than myself.”
Szal pushes Kubiak, but only when she knows the member is strong enough to reach the next level.
The businesswoman has never heard her client ask, “Why me?”
“She’s come a long way, and she’s not stopping,” she said.
Szal, who has had more than 2,000 members since opening in 2002, paid Kubiak a nice compliment.
“You stand out as one of the most hard-working, committed members,” she said. ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org