Kung Fu vs Multiple Sclerosis the Story of Karen Panecatl

It was early Thursday morning in May, 2015, at 7am, when I was awakened by Karen’s cell phone call: “I can not move my leg, I just woke up and I can not move my leg” she said scared. I had just woken up and had no idea what could have happened. The first thing I said was probably “You fell asleep on that side and your leg is still cramped from being asleep…” but that wasn’t it at all- Karen would not receive her diagnosis until a week later. It was Multiple Sclerosis.

An entire day passed and Karen remained motionless, by that time the panic had already taken over all of us. The only thing that came to mind was to take her to my acupuncture teacher and longtime friend Roberto Alcocer, thinking he could help. He put some needles to work and after two sessions it was like magic, she began to move her leg! So our scare was over and everything was back to being perfect! “Who knows what it was? But everything was back to normal!”, was our first reaction, but the MS would soon attack again.

After several days, Karen would continue to experience this issue with her limbs, legs, arms, hands, intense pain in the legs and back, and the most serious- losing movement completely. Multiple sclerosis in women can end many times with leaving the patient in a wheelchair, unable to fend for themselves- the greatest fear of all who have faced this disease. When the diagnosis of the National Institute of Neurology finally arrived It was overwhelming. I feared for Karen, even though I knew that the people who love her would never leave her to face this alone and that no matter what we would support her but for Karen, an enterprising and independent woman, this would be her worst misfortune, the diagnosis of MS being the cause of her pains and paralysis was truly devastating on every level.

I thought I saw fear in her eyes for a moment. But then Karen reacted totally differently; as if she was angry, and refused to accept this fate, she began to train harder, against the medical recommendations of her doctors she continued to perform her Kung Fu jumps and cartwheels, she began to train Kung Fu and Qi Gong mornings and afternoons and seemed offended when people offered to help her walk around, or do other things for her she refused and began training even harder.

As a martial arts machine Karen started taking Kung Fu classes in our temple daily, and started traveling to New York with our ShiFu Shi Yan Ming to take classes with him. Of course she started to take a very expensive treatment at the Institute of Neurology- there was no cure but it does help patients to overcome its symptoms- it is only temporary however. This medication can not be used forever, and to take it you are placed in the hospital- so Karen had other plans; “I’ll use it while it can be used,” she told me, “but I’m not going to only rely on this medicine.”

“I want to go to China!” she declared one day after finishing the Kung Fu class.
“But the problem is that the medication is not going to be in China,” I said, because if we traveled we would be all the way on the other side of the world without her MS specialist and without her medication, it just did not seem like the best idea.

“I do not care, aren’t you going to come with me? I’m going!” She replied in a defiant tone.

I did not know whether to feel happy or fearful of Karen’s defiant attitude, of course I was surprised for the way she had addressed her illness, when many people collapsed she had chosen to confront MS as an opponent as if she was in combat, but sometimes I thought to myself: “Is she going too far?” What will we do if something happens? This concern was not mere exaggerating! I tried to convince her to postpone the trip, but it was no use, and when it finally sank in and when I saw that it was useless I decided to invite our students to come with us. We made it into a Mexico Temple trip to China and we all travelled in a group, that is how we visited our Kung Fu brothers in China 2016.

The trip was a success and our brothers from the schools of Shaolin China received us very warmly, taking us to see the most important places in that beautiful country. We went to visit the brothers of Shi Yan Ming in Shaolin Temple in Henan but we also wanted to know all about the Wudang mountain and so we also travelled there.

When we arrived at the foot of the mountain our Wudang guide explained to us the climb to the top of the mountain is by a cable car, there are also wheelbarrows or there is the traditional climb up the stairs, which is more than 3,000 steps and takes approximately 4 hours to climb. I just lowered my head with resignation, Karen was showing the signs that she was in battle mode- “there is no ‘no’” – I already knew who was coming, I already knew what option we were going to take…

It took me 6 hours to get to the top, Karen climbed the whole way, trotting and taking advantage of my fatigue to take pictures and enjoy the scenery. The descent would have to be by the cable car option though, because it was too late, so this time if I imposed, I felt that I could be successful, this might be the only time, it would be one of my few achievements if I could convince her to stop the exercise a bit.

Upon returning to Mexico Karen was very happy to have traveled and to have learned about Shaolin and Wudang in China, she looked happy and seemed to have forgotten a bit how cruel fate can sometimes be. Happiness did not last long, the months passed, the news was full of stories about harassment against women, rape, and fraudulent people selling magic healing, this was all like an assault and it began to make her bad again.

She started taking defense classes, classes in Qi Gong with ShiFu Shi Yan Ming and reading about crimes in Mexico City and with the help of a good friend and self defense specialist (Dr. Fabián Rueda), she started to design two campaigns: the first one against MS (serinmune.org) and the second a personal defense course for women (shaolindefense.org). With these projects Karen became an inspiration not just to us but for the women of our city. A girl with sclerosis giving self-defense classes? Every time the girls thought “I am very short” or “I am very skinny, how am I going to defend myself? Karen responded “well… I have multiple sclerosis and look at me” and the girls were left without an answer.

To this day Karen Panécatl continues to be a source of inspiration for all those who know her, people with degenerative diseases approach her to ask how she is doing so well, girls from Mexico City attend her courses to learn self defense, and in our same temple men and women are looking for her to learn Kung Fu and Qi Gong.

Recently we placed a poster announcing a martial arts tournament in November. “Oh noooo! I won’t be able to go against Karen! I already lost!” exclaims Gloria (beginner student of Kung Fu) when she sees the categories. “She is in the advanced one, its not your category” I answer, “Well then I might sign up…” she replies looking at the poster again.

Of course not everything is rosy, Karen Panecatl faces the same problems as all of us, she is also the subject of naysayers and verbal comments and attacks, envious and unscrupulous or ignorant people who criticize her, Internet warriors and armchair experts, many of whom say “those defense courses do not work”, or “She is sick, she has MS, and sh is going to give martial arts classes??” Or “Kung Fu and Qi Gong are not good for fighting diseases”, but Karen does not flinch she is still living proof that we can all take our health and safety in our hands and hundreds of people follow and admire her.

Someday we will have the cure of MS, gender equality will prevail one day, but in the meantime warriors like Karen will continue to serve as inspiration for us.

In class one day, Fernando (a student of Kung Fu) said: “Teacher today I can not train that hard because my leg hurts…” and all Karen did was turn to see him, and Fernando coughed, “Nevermind I’m good! I’m going to train harder!”

By  Heng Yi and Heng Fa.