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Ha-ha! Laughing away pain with yoga

8:29 AM, Mar 5, 2013   |    comments
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Mike Lewis pretends to model the latest fashion trends. He wiggles around as if he has ice down his pants – anything to generate laughs from the patients with brain injuries who are attending his laughter yoga class.

After years of therapy and life changes, Lewis, a brain injury survivor himself, has settled into his role as the peer mentor at On With Life, a rehabilitation center in Ankeny.

"I like to think I'm a good role model for people who are questioning, doubting, wondering if they're going to be able to come back from their injury. I'm the living proof that it's possible and I think sometimes just being here and having them understand my story as it relates to their story simply gives them hope," said Lewis, 65, who will share his story at the Brain Injury Alliance-Iowa conference Thursday and Friday at the West Des Moines Sheraton. "My most important job is to be a purveyor of hope. That's my most valued currency."

Lewis introduces laughter yoga with some motivation: "Our time today will not be worrying about yesterday. We're simply going to enjoy each other and stop any new pain."

Starting with a low-key "heh, heh, heh," Lewis transitions into a full belly laugh. He pretends to shuffle along a carpet and shock participants with his finger, igniting more giggles. Research shows the body cannot differentiate between real or simulated laughter and both offer the same health benefits.

Lewis' new role is quite a transformation from the workaholic lifestyle he led prior to his first brain injury in 1990. His vehicle was struck from behind on his way home to West Des Moines from a business trip in Kansas City. He injured his frontal lobes in the crash and suffered a diffuse injury, similar to getting struck by lightning and the energy spreading throughout the brain.

Lewis recovered at Younker Rehabilitation at Iowa Methodist Medical Center, and returned to work as a manufacturer's rep in the fine dining and retail housewares industries. In 1995, as he worked a trade show in Chicago, he was involved in another car accident, this time riding in a taxi. That injury made it more difficult to continue his job.

The frontal lobes are responsible for executive function – the ability to organize, plan and shift from one conversation or environment – so Lewis now depends on routines and repetition. He's surprisingly articulate, but at times reaches for words.

Following the second accident, Lewis explored career options through Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services and enrolled in On With Life's community services program. He became an enumerator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, served a short stint as a jeweler and became a transporter at On With Life before taking time off.

After sharing his story in 2010, On With Life leaders thought he offered a unique perspective and hired him as the center's first peer mentor. He meets with four patients daily, teaches laughter yoga and hosts a support group.

"I tell people: We will help you overcome, adapt and persevere through a very hard time. But keep as much energy as possible into the concept of hope," he said. "Miracles do happen; we see them here all the time."

His new outlook on life inspires others.

"I no longer see money as a reason to get up every morning," he said. "Now my reward is to help other people have a better life after being dealt something they didn't want, didn't need, didn't ask for and certainly didn't deserve."

Lewis admits it took time to reach this point, first having to overcome periods of anger, frustration and denial. Humor and laughter help smooth the road.

Patients view him as a friend, and a little goofy.

"If you're having a down day, he brings you up," said Robin Hammans. "I don't think he knows just how much he helps all of us."

"He's friendly, warm," added Susan Cox. "Everybody talks about how much better they feel, how they're more able to cope with their situation. He gives good strategies for coping, plus he has experience. So we say he's a keeper."

Lewis has also earned the admiration of co-workers, including Dave Anders, the facility's therapy manager.

"His brain injury-related changes caused him to lose his job, lose his lifestyle and lose his marriage. I can't imagine having the strength of character to allow me to move through that kind of experience with the level of grace and perspective Mike has shown," Anders said. "Even more, he channels the life lessons he's learned from his losses to help other brain injury survivors understand that while they may not have the same life they had before, their quality of life can be as good as it was, or maybe even better."

Anders said families trust Lewis and share feelings they may not be comfortable communicating to other professionals.

For Lewis, the role is "self-renewing."

"I sometimes think I should be paying On with Life for continuation of my therapy. What I say and do here is simply a product of what I've learned from other health care professionals. But the bottom line is that this entire process has simply made me a better person and I'm very grateful for that," he said.

Des Moines Register

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