Looking at Hannah White Willems, a Johnson County group exercise instructor and middle school teacher, one would never guess she was wheelchair-bound just a few years ago.
For several years, White Willems struggled with a painful and debilitating health condition called fibromyalgia. Often difficult to describe, fibromyalgia typically affects a person’s muscles and skeletal system, causing excruciating pain and fatigue.
The condition’s causes remain mysterious and onsetting events can vary from person to person.
For White Willems, the pain made it nearly impossible for her to get out of her wheelchair. The Indian Woods teacher had little hope of ever overcoming it.
But today, White Willems now not only walks, she has also become a group fitness instructor at the Lenexa Rec Center.
“I don’t take my health for granted,” she said. “I’m joyful whenever I have a chance to move my body. I just see the joy in the movement. I want to share that with other people.”
If you’re interested in hearing more about her testimony of recovery, watch this YouTube video below.
‘Feel like my skin was full of needles’
For White Willems, it started around age 18 with frequent migraines.
After a decade of trying to figure out how to deal with these serious headaches, at age 27, “everything just blew out,” with meltdowns, panic attacks and flashbacks to a horrible incident when she was sexually traumatized in her youth, she says.
She believes the trouble stemmed from her suppression of memories from the sexual trauma that she began to relive. And the trauma manifested itself in different ways.
Over the next two or three years of seeing multiple doctors, specialists and medications, her body slowly declined.
“I could do fewer things; I was in more pain,” she said. “I started to feel like my skin was full of needles, as if there were millions of pairs of nails digging into your skin. I would have these deep muscle aches. I had a low-grade flu all the time.”
She also became light-sensitive. Then her torso cramped to the point where she couldn’t walk. She couldn’t digest complex foods anymore. She went on a “white food” diet of rice, chicken, potatoes, anything easy on her stomach. She couldn’t even eat salad.
All of her blood tests would come back normal, and yet there was obviously something wrong with her. By age 32, she had to start using a cane.
Doctors suspected it was fibromyalgia, but due to a stigma around the condition, she said they told her to keep it quiet so that hospitals would still treat her.
By age 35, she was in a wheelchair. She could only take about 300 steps in a day. At that point, she was taking 50 to 60 pills of prescriptions and supplements a day, “just to exist.”
She has no pictures of herself in a wheelchair with her face showing. While her family was supportive and her work was helpful and accommodating, she lost her social circle of friends. She struggled with PTSD, depression and loneliness.
“I was very ashamed of it,” White Willems said. “I wanted to be independent so bad.”
The road to recovery
Things only began to turn around for White Willems, she says, when she began attending Church of the Harvest, a non-denominational congregation in Olathe, in May 2015.
“They were just so kind to me there,” she said. “They always said, ‘Hannah, we know God’s going to do something in your life. We don’t know when. We don’t know what it will look like. But we’d love to pray with you every week until something changes.’”
Almost a year to the day in May 2016 — when she was still feeling exhausted and desperate for change — her pastor David Freck led her in 20 minutes of intense prayer, she says.
It felt like a switch had gone off in her brain.
Two days later, her pain dramatically. Two weeks later, she stopped taking half of her medications.
She slowly tried walking without her wheelchair, and for the first time in years, it didn’t hurt. Within three weeks, she could walk a whole mile in a day.
“I couldn’t believe it was true,” she said. “I just remember being so excited.”
That summer, she spent every day trying out what felt like a new body. She ate salad every day, enjoyed lunch with friends. Rain or shine, she took her walk. By the end of the summer, she could walk two miles at a time.
In December 2017, she completed her first 5K. Since then, she has completed nearly two dozen races. She moved on to weightlifting and most recently discovered STRONG Nation, an intense full-body workout. She now teaches classes of it at the Lenexa Rec Center.
“When God healed my body, I found the joy in movement,” White Willems said. “It just has never been my thing before.”
Clinical interventions and treatment for fibromyalgia vary from patient to patient, but recent studies have shown that chronic pain from the condition can be eased by techniques like psychotherapy and other interventions that focus on a person’s emotional state, along with behavioral modifications.
Gratitude for support at at her school
Theresa Kipper, a colleague at Indian Woods, recalls her friend’s difficult time before she recovered and was able to walk again.
“It’s really just been in the last five years that all of a sudden things turned around for her,” said “Whatever it was that she started to do, then her attitude and her energy and everything shifted. We’re talking about somebody that was very disabled and had a lot of fatigue, and is now working out and running in races and just living a very full and active physical life. She’s an inspiration.”
Paula Morales, who was associate principal over the years when White Willems got progressively worse, shared about her worry for her staff member during that difficult period. Years later, after she retired and then learned that her staff member had recovered, she was shocked at the transformation.
“I could not believe the change in her,” Morales said. “I would not have believed it had I not known what she was like before. When we haven’t walked in another person’s shoes, it’s pretty easy to judge them. We need to remember that we haven’t walked in their shoes.”
White Willems said she is particularly grateful for her school administrators and colleagues who helped her during that difficult period and allowed her to focus on her health. This fall marks her 22nd school year with the Shawnee Mission School District.
“Schools may be made of people and bureaucracy, but they also are a lot of people with very big hearts,” she said. “You just have to be willing to say that you need some help.”
Making others feel strong
At the Lenexa Rec Center, things are going great with her fitness classes. Her high-intensity classes, focused on rhythm and explosive movements that integrate elements of dance and marital arts, captured her attention.
“It makes me feel powerful, because you do get to throw some punches and kicks in addition to the regular planks and burpees and everything,” White Willems said. “It just makes me feel strong. It’s the hardest thing I’ve been able to do.”
She hopes people going through difficult challenges know that they’re not alone, that they matter and that they have purpose. That’s what she conveys in her classes, say her supervisors.
“It’s inspiring; it’s amazing,” said Josh Geary, fitness supervisor who interviewed White Willems for her job at the rec center. “We get all walks of life, all experiences. Like we were talking about before in the interview, even if you touch one person with this, that’s a win.”