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Juliet and Elena Porras and their Life Time trainer.

Julie Porras’s daughter, Elena, was just hours old when she received her first dose of chemotherapy. Diagnosed with stage III neuroblastoma, Elena immediately began a six-round course of chemo; at five months, she endured a 10-hour surgery to remove the tumor.

Elena faced many challenges during the early years of her life. The tumor had compressed her spinal cord, paralyzing her from the waist down. Chemotherapy had damaged her developing brain, permanently impairing her cognition. Julie struggled to hold herself together.

“I was treading water,” Julie recalls. She eventually reached a crisis point where she felt such despair and anxiety that she no longer wanted to live. She sought out therapy; she also began running to manage her extreme depression.

Those interventions helped, but Julie’s challenges soon became physical, as well: As Elena grew, she became more difficult for Julie to pick up and carry.

A Life Time trainer suggested Julie try Olympic weightlifting. Intimidated but inspired, she learned the basics from her trainer and started attending Alpha classes at her club. “Fast-forward, Elena’s now 130 pounds and she never asks if she’s too heavy,” Julie says. “I lift her easily.”

A funny, arts-and-crafts-loving 15-year-old, Elena now enjoys working out with her mom. Her own twice-a-week training at Life Time — in group settings and one-on-one with a personal trainer — has connected her with other members and staff, who are drawn to her wry humor and optimism.

And her workouts have helped her achieve levels of physical independence Julie could never have imagined. “Just recently she got into the passenger seat of the car with no assistance, which is major,” Julie reports. “She had the strength and confidence to do that because of her work here.”

Julie’s own physical strength — she now trains two hours a day, seven days a week — and her hard-won insights as the parent of a disabled child have given her emotional resilience and perspective.

“I think there’s a grander scheme,” she says. “We can reach people and teach them to love. That’s what Elena does. She teaches people love and happiness and choosing to look at situations with gratitude.”

Though some days are tough, and Elena’s health remains compromised, mother and daughter hold on to optimism.

“Elena chose me to be her mom because I’m strong enough to be her mom,” Julie says. “I’m capable enough and I appreciate the gift that she is and her purpose on Earth. She’s been my biggest blessing. She’s taught me so much.”

This article also appears in “Changing Lives,” which features eight Life Time Member Stories, in the July/August 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Jill Patton, FMCHC

Jill Patton, FMCHC, is a Minneapolis-based health writer and functional-medicine certified health coach.

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