Ron Marinucci: May Column - Heather Turkopp

Ron Marinucci: May Column - Heather Turkopp

Heather Turkopp has been running for a dozen years. “I started running to get the biggest bang for my buck time-wise,” she related. “I had two teenage boys at the time who required a lot from me.” And, she added with a quip, “as teenagers do.”

With time at such a premium, running and biking allowed her to do “the two activities I truly love to do.” She explained, “Because I sit a lot all day in a room without windows, I really feel the need to get outside in the fresh air after work. It makes me feel so alive and healthy. I love to feel my heart pumping, the sweat running down my back, my lungs filling with air, and my mind becoming clearer.”

Since 2000, Turkopp has ridden four Michigan Bike Tours. She’s also finished six half marathons and a number of 10Ks.

Perhaps, then, there was more than a bit of wistfulness as she explained all this. For the past two years, Turkopp has battled “a condition, for lack of a better word,” that has gradually robbed her of these physical activities she loves.

The symptoms of this “condition” first appeared in the spring of 2010. They didn’t hinder her running for a while, but did affect her biking. “I couldn’t keep my left foot on the pedal,” she recounted. “I could only ride with my foot pointed down [in plantar flexion]. Running and walking were perfectly normal.”

By summer time, though, matters worsened. “I could not walk in heels, but flat shoes and running were still normal.” In the fall, even walking in flat shoes was a problem. “Walking became increasingly difficult. I had to walk very slowly and concentrate on what my left foot was doing at all times.”

Finally, Turkopp’s running suffered in August 2011. “[Then] I completely stopped running in mid-November because it was so much effort and I was very afraid I would start tripping and falling,” she said. “Basically, my left foot has lost its coordination for automatic activities such as walking, running, and biking.”

That was particularly frustrating for her because Turkopp is an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist for the Beaumont Health Center in Royal Oak. With three decades of experience, she has “a pretty good understanding of how the body and brain work.” Still, “my condition is baffling to me.”

Seeking medical help, she discovered the doctor were “baffled” as well. “All the doctors I have seen thus far have never seen or heard of anything like this, so I have no official diagnosis.”

She underwent a battery of tests, including “MRIs, EMGs [electromyographies], NCVs [nerve conduction velocity], blood work, and lots of neurological exams.” Doctors were trying to measure the electrical impulses to her muscles, to try to detect any nerve injuries. Nothing specific was discovered. “All they can tell me is that it is something in the central nervous system.”

The symptoms haven’t abated at all. And it wasn’t just her physical activities that were eroding. So was her mood. “When I could no longer bike, I was somewhat depressed, but I still had running to keep me sane. When running was also taken from me, I became very depressed.” She admitted, “Christmas shopping last year was a huge chore because even walking into a store was an effort.”

She consulted with her neurologist and physiatrist in January of this year and they agreed to send her to an orthotist. She wanted “some sort of brace that would at least enable me to walk and bike.” She obtained a prescription for a brace and subsequent insurance approval, leading her to Becker Orthopedics in Berkley and orthotist Santiago Munoz.

“He was awesome!” Turkopp gushed. Munoz knew of “a marathon runner who is running full marathons with a brace made by Allard USA called the Toe OFF.” The brace is made from thin, lightweight carbon fiber. “It straps on to my lower leg and a strut runs down the outside of my foot into my shoe. It supports the entire underneath of my foot.” The brace permits her to run and walk, striking first with her heel and rolling off her toe. “It feels totally normal for walking.”

She admitted, “The day Santiago first told me about this brace and the marathon runner, I sat in my car for about ten minutes crying before I could drive home. I never thought I would be able to run again, but he gave me hope!”

“Right away, I contacted the marathoner, Beth Deloria, for tips in returning to running with the brace.” Deloria was a veteran marathoner, with Chicago and Boston on her resume. She developed foot drop, a neurological and muscular condition that is marked by an inability to lift the forefoot. She thought her running days were over. But she discovered Allard USA and the Toe OFF which allowed her to run again, including another Chicago faster than her first one. Now, Deloria and Allard USA have teamed. She hopes to run twenty half marathons in 2012, all in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series, as well as other races “to encourage the thousands of people with foot drop to reclaim their lives.”

Turkopp said, “Just knowing that there was someone out there running with the brace was so inspirational to me. I thought, ‘If she can do it, so can I.’” The two have corresponded by phone and e-mail. Even though Deloria’s “disability is different than mine, she has been a huge help.” One of Deloria’s scheduled races is a half marathon in DeWitt, Michigan on May 12. Turkopp will be there, too, running the 10K, and they will finally meet face-to-face.

Turkopp received her brace on Valentine’s Day, not quite three months ago. She recalled, “I took a walk around the block and I can’t tell you how great it felt to walk normally! After a few days I did a two-mile run/walk. Two days later I ran two miles!” And, three weeks before her 10K in DeWitt, she has run 6.2 miles, “without any walk breaks. So I think I am ready.”

The entire episode “has been a learning experience for both my orthotist and me.” She broke her first brace after one month and then tried a different model, the Blue Rocker, also from Allard USA. It provided firmer support. “But it felt much too rigid for me. We then went back to the Toe OFF, but added custom orthotics and small heel lifts in my shoes to lessen the stress on the brace. So far, so good!”

Turkopp wears the brace all day, even on the job. “With the brace, I never think about how far of a walk it is to go anywhere. I just go!”

“I can’t tell you what it means to me to be able to run again. I feel like myself in mind, body, and spirit. I am still not able to bike, but I plan to work on that next. I’ll need some other sort of brace for that. But, for now, running is enough.”

And she enthused, “I am meeting someone tomorrow for lunch who just got the Toe OFF and wants to start running with it. I am so excited to pass on the inspiration to someone else!”