Chuck Burmeister of Tiffin looks like the picture of health, and his active lifestyle gives no indication of serious illness; however, Burmeister has been struggling with multiple sclerosis since 2000. Since then, changes in his lifestyle and occupation have allowed him to lead a relatively normal life in spite of the incurable disease.
Burmeister has acquired his 200-hour certification as a yoga instructor. He teaches four classes of various levels at the YMCA in Tiffin. Once a month, he also offers a free MS yoga class at Community Hospice Care.
He also maintains a blog and website, www.yogachuck.com.
PHOTO BY MARYANN KROMER
“Yoga Chuck” Burmeister has found balance is important in yoga and in everyday life.
Also, Burmeister works four days a week at Diverse Technology Solutions doing "bench" work on computers that clients bring in. Most of the work arrives early in the week so he can finish before he leaves Thursday. He uses the extra day to study yoga, in conjunction with his ongoing training for advanced certification.
He credits yoga for overcoming his MS symptoms.
"I had no idea I would be where I am today. I never thought I would come out of it like this," Burmeister said.
Based in Maumee, the Northwest Ohio chapter of the National MS Society sponsors a support group that meets at 7 p.m. the second Monday of each month.
The next meeting is April 9 at First United Church of Christ, 2100 Glendale Drive, Findlay, across from Fox Run Nursing Home. The facilitators, Pat and Jerry Gallant, can be reached at (419) 894-6254.
The local MS Walk is set for April 28 at Koehler Athletic Complex, 1000 N. Main St., Findlay, on the University of Findlay campus.
Chuck Burmeister is planning to set up a booth for demonstrations of his exercises and information about MS yoga. In addition, teams are forming to collect pledges and participate in the walk.
Visit walkms.org or call (800) Fight MS.
That first year, he was having symptoms that were mistaken for other ailments. The first sign of trouble was blurred vision that came on while he was working in a hot attic. It dissipated later that day but returned about a year later.
An opthamologist told Burmeister he had optic neuritis.
Having done some research online, he and his family learned MS often affects the optic nerve.
The family doctor referred Burmeister to a neurologist for more tests. Even after an MRI that showed lesions on the brain, the doctor was not concerned.
Burmeister requested a spinal tap, which detected myelin in his spinal fluid, but the doctor still was hesitant to diagnose MS.
Returning to his family physician, Burmeister asked for a new direction, which turned out to be the Mellen Center at the Cleveland Clinic.
"Within 15 minutes I was diagnosed with MS. She said, 'You're in remission, but you need to be on drugs immediately.' So then I started a once-a-week subcutaneous injection," Burmeister said.
For three years, he received injections of Avonex and continued working as a truck driver for Conway, pulling double trailers. Side effects from the injections caused him to discontinue that treatment.
When his vision started deteriorating again, his doctor in Cleveland forbade him to drive, so Conway gave Burmeister a dispatching job for two years.
"In 2005, the wheels came off and I got really sick," Burmeister said. "The fatigue was so bad. I couldn't drive at all because of vision. My boss would pick me up and take me to work, and my wife would take me home at night."
Extreme fatigue made it impossible to get through the work day without a nap. Spasms, poor muscle control and "electric shock" sensations also developed.
His doctor administered intravenous steroids to alleviate the symptoms as much as possible, with little improvement.
Next, Burmeister was given a three-month chemotherapy regimen with steroids to reduce the inflammation. Although this technique works for many MS patients, Burmeister's flare-ups continued.
After an especially hot shower, Burmeister experienced paralysis on the left side of his face. His ear became extremely sensitive to loud noise.
"I had to lubricate my eyeball because I couldn't close my eyelid any more. I had to wear an eye patch over my eye," he said. "So, I'm in the Cleveland Clinic, getting chemo. I've got an ear plug in to prevent the noise from hurting me, I've got an eyepatch on, sitting there for four and a half hours of chemo."
At that point, the doctor stopped chemotherapy and said there was nothing else to be done. She wrote him a letter recommending he be placed on disability.
Burmeister sank into depression and started seeing a therapist.
"I had to see someone for a year because I couldn't accept the new me. Depression is one of the side effects to begin with," Burmeister said. "Prior to the MS, I didn't know what depression was."
One factor that helped him through it was changing his mindset. Instead of looking at the negatives in his life, he tried to focus on the positives, such as his faithful wife, Carol, who also became his caregiver.
"At one point, I told her, 'Divorce me. You should not have to live this life ...' but she wasn't leaving me. She never blinked," Burmeister said. "For about a year, my wife and I couldn't go anywhere. Just going to a movie, with the big screen and things moving ... then I had to hang onto her because I had no balance left, and it threw her (off balance). We went to the St. Mary Festival and I lasted about 15 minutes. The people just walking past was throwing me off. ... I couldn't go to the grocery store because of walking down the aisles with things going past."
Having run out of many options, Burmeister and his wife read everything they could about MS and ways to relieve the symptoms.
Some sources advocated a diet of whole foods low in sugar, fat, sodium and artificial additives. For a short time, the Burmeisters had owned and operated Cool Creations Restaurant in Tiffin.
He said he had tried just about everything they served to customers.
"I'd eat chips, candy, ice cream ... I would eat everything," he said. "I changed my whole diet because of this MS. I was doing everything I could to change. ... I believe what we eat really has an effect on who we are."
Except for an occasional splurge, Burmeister gave up most of the unhealthy choices and developed a taste for healthier foods. The research also indicated yoga could improve the physical symptoms of MS. Burmeister found a yoga video and decided to try that, as well.
"Whenever you get sick like that, you read everything, and yoga's one of the things they say can help. I started five minutes a day. I remember I went down the basement to do it. ... I came upstairs after that five minutes. I made it to the top of the steps and I just sat there. I was so fatigued, so exhausted. But I just kept doing it," Burmeister said.
Gradually, the yoga helped him become more aware of his body and regain his balance.
The depression lifted, and Burmeister enrolled in an online course.
During a disability hearing with a magistrate in Lima. Burmeister explained he was studying computer technology and braced himself to be denied.
The magistrate granted disability status and said he would review Burmeister's case in a year.
The magistrate also predicted Burmeister would be able to beat
his disease and become independent again.
For three and a half years, Burmeister collected his benefits, finished his classes and obtained an internship at DTS.
The owners, Tony Consolo and Keith Comer, gave him a flexible schedule to accommodate his illness and his studies. Eventually, they hired him part-time, and Burmeister decided to terminate the disability benefits.
"I took myself off of it. When I called for that, the lady on the other end of the phone, said 'Do you realize what you're doing?' I said, 'Yeah. I want to function in society.'"
DTS then hired Burmeister full-time. Even though he received more income from disability, Burmeister said he prefers being "functional."
When he told his doctors at the Cleveland Clinic what he had done, they were amazed. Most of their patients are either on disability or are "begging" to be diagnosed so they can go on disability.
Burmeister still has an erratic sleep schedule, but yoga keeps most of the other symptoms under control. He starts most days with 90 minutes or more of yoga, in addition to teaching classes.
He said five people have participated in the MS yoga class and reported feeling better for it.
Watching his beginner students reminds him of those early days struggling to hanging onto the top of the bar in the basement.
"There was no way I could stand on one leg. Now, whenever I'm in my classes, and teaching the tree pose on one leg, I'm looking around the class and talking to them. I can keep my balance because you get to know your body and pressure points on the foot," Burmeister said. "The more I do it, the more I love it."