Jo Giles underwent a double lung transplant 18 months ago, at the age of 47 years. She has an intimate knowledge of pain and shares her management strategies in this interview.
How did you come across Tai Chi?
A friend with CF recommended it because I had been trying different types of exercise which had all become too tiring or difficult for me as I was too unwell.
It’s a very old Chinese exercise system that uses slow, smooth body movements to achieve a state of relaxation of both body and mind.
What was your first class like?
Good, in that I was able to follow the moves and I instantly felt relaxed and felt like everything was connecting. Tai Chi has a lot of moves. I was told to just let go and go along with it. When I learnt to let go and not worry so much about the moves, it was more relaxing. I learnt the whole set by the end of the beginner’s class.
Did Tai Chi help with managing pain?
I had pain associated with breathing, particularly before transplant and it helped in the form of relaxation. It doesn’t necessarily focus on breathing, but the movement encourages a type of breathing that is meditative and relaxing, and that helps with the pain of breathing and the anxiety around that. It’s a bit of a cyclic thing; breathing-pain-anxiety, but the Tai Chi helps to intersect that cycle. As you focus your breath on the moves, the moves distract you from the pain and the anxiety around that.
When I was nearing transplant, I was very sick and every breath caused pain; headaches, chest, shoulder and abdominal pain, and some pleural pain (muscular and skeletal due to inflammation in the airways). Tai Chi has many levels depending on fitness. It was something I could do standing, in a chair, even in bed when I was too sick to get up. I could either do hand movements or practice visualising movements. When I couldn’t sleep, I would visualise doing sets of Tai Chi and would still get relaxation out of this.
Does Tai Chi help with posture and strength?
Tai Chi helps to develop core muscles. A natural response to coughing is to restrict inwards. Tai Chi helps to expand and open up the joints, the fascia and the muscles. A simple stretch out actually massages the internal organs.
Were there other benefits from this practice?
When I became really unwell I couldn’t handle people hugging me; it became painful and when super unwell you withdraw inside as well. To look out requires energy. Towards the end, every ounce of energy needed to be saved for myself. It would have been easy to stay inside. It’s like closing a door but being aware that you still need to leave a crack open to let people in. Tai Chi was a way for me to keep interacting with people. I could still go to a class and do exercise in a chair. They created a “Health Recovery” class at the Bayswater group to help support me through transplant. A similar class existed in Fremantle so it was great that they were able to start one close to me.
Where are you now in terms of your health?
I’m now 18 months’ post-transplant and teaching Tai Chi. I did teach about five years ago, but had to stop due to becoming unwell, so it’s great that I am able to do this again. I became reaccredited in August 2016 and I practice every day; it’s more active now.
Do you use other strategies to help manage pain?
I like to do puzzle solving such as Sudoku and video games. I also enjoy reading.
Article from RED Magazine, Edition 2 2017.