Life with MS

Saving Our Wellness Center

By Mary Ellen Smolinski


When we saw our paradise was going to be paved to put up a parking lot, we knew we had to do something. In January 2016, the wellness center my husband and I belonged to sent an email to all members that it would be closing on May 1. For relatively healthy members, this was a disappointment, but not hard to replace with another nearby club. But, this was devastating for those of us who depended on the facilities and programs to simply maintain our ability to move.
 
Palos Hospital owned the Palos Health and Fitness Center (PHFC) and built it on one corner of a medical complex they owned in Orland Park, Ill. But, when they wanted to expand that medical complex, they made the decision that a huge, two-story parking garage was more important than the 14-year-old fitness center.
 
Unlike any other health facility in the area, PHFC catered not just to health enthusiasts, but also to people who require specific, and sometimes gentler, types of exercise offerings. The facility had a 25-yard lap pool that was also used for water exercise, as well as a warm water therapy pool. Warm water therapy benefits a huge number of people, including those with any kind of joint pain, persons who have had joint injuries, as well as older individuals who have a hard time in colder water. And this was the only warm water therapy pool in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Although there are facilities in the area that offer arthritis and senior programs, their pools only meet the minimum recommended temperature for those classes and therefore are still too cold for many.
 
Besides the usual aqua aerobics that are offered at every health club with a pool, PHFC regularly offered specialized classes free to members, such as senior aqua, arthritis aqua, and – my lifeline – MS aqua. The instructors are all trained and certified for specialized arthritis and MS activities. They provided exercises designed to improve the movement, balance, and cardiovascular health of the participants, all while being mindful of participant’s limitations. The MS Aqua group at PHFC has been active for 12 years and is the largest in Illinois. It is also the only MS aqua program in the area.
 
Besides the pools, PHFC offered many other programs and exercise machines that are designed for those with health challenges, not just the healthy that want to maintain their condition. Regular programs, which are included as part of the membership fee, included MS yoga, Parkinson’s exercises, gentle yoga, young at heart (cardio that incorporates using chairs for support), T’ai Chi, low-impact fitness, cycle light, ageless grace (chair exercises) and balance basics. Equipment offered included not only the usual health club offerings, but also devices like the Nu-Step, which is a recumbent (seated) machine that exercises both arms and legs. Trainers were available and happy to work with every member, regardless of any physical limitations.
 
The clientele at PHFC was different than you’d see at other health clubs. You saw healthy, active members next to members who need the assistance of canes, walkers, wheelchairs, and oxygen. All washrooms, locker rooms, showers, and other areas had accessible accommodations like grab bars, large turning areas, and chair lifts at each pool. There were two family/handicap locker rooms where a caregiver or spouse could help a member change for the pool or exercising.



Although the Palos Hospital administrator told the news outlets that the closing was “a done deal,” many of us were determined to not let this happen without a fight. One member quickly found out that Illinois Health Services had to approve the need for the new medical building and filed a request for a local hearing. At the hearing, we had 295 people come to oppose the expansion while only 21 came to support the hospital. More than a hundred people – including many of our own personal physicians – sent letters of opposition directly to the health board.
 
We sent out press releases to all Chicago- area media outlets and received coverage on TV, radio, and newspapers. We asked all of our supporters to contact their politicians and received overwhelming support. We established a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. Our Facebook posts would often reach more than 10,000 people. Another member made a wonderful video featuring testimonials about how important the wellness center was to us.
 
We organized a protest rally on a Saturday morning across the street from the hospital itself. Some of us were standing, but many people were sitting in their wheelchairs, scooters, or next to their walkers. Everyone held yellow signs and yellow balloons, and we all chanted “save our health club.”
 
The Orland Township board and supervisor now knew the importance of the wellness center and filed a lawsuit to stop the Illinois Health Board from voting on the issue. They found out that a technicality, which separated the health club from the hospital in their corporate structure, was invalid. When our group asked what we could do to help with the lawsuit, the supervisor suggested that we present affidavits to the judge stating that there were no other facilities in the area that provided the benefits that PHFC provided. Within three days we presented more than 500 signed affidavits.
 
The mayor of Orland Park met with a few of us to tell us that they were in talks with the hospital, but to “keep doing what we were doing.” On March 23, two days before the lawsuit was scheduled to be heard, and six days before the Health Board vote, it was announced that a deal had been made with the hospital. Orland Park would swap land that it owned adjacent to the hospital’s property in exchange for the health club and the land that it was on.
 
Our health center never closed, and on Jan. 11, 2017, the ribbon was cut to officially rename the facility as the Orland Park Health and Fitness Center. A small group of us have another announcement: We have established the Working on Wellness Foundation. We hope to raise funds that will benefit the members and programs of OPHFC that are medically necessary and will start with helping the MS group.
 
We still have our Facebook page, but have renamed it to Saved OPHFC. Visit www.facebook.com/SavePHFC to find photos, links to news, and that wonderful testimonial video.