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Breaking the Ice

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By Jessica Squazzo

It's difficult to imagine U.S. Olympic speed skater Bonnie Blair slowing down for anything. After all, she didn't earn five Olympic gold medals and the title of "fastest woman on the ice" by going slow.

But, like many women, Blair found herself experiencing stress urinary incontinence (SUI) after the birth of her first child. An avid athlete who was eager to get back into her daily exercise routine, Blair noticed the leaking of urine during her day-to-day activities, including on her beloved morning jogs. And, like many women who experience incontinence, Blair found herself too embarrassed about her condition to talk to her husband, or her doctor, about it.

But after having her second child and still experiencing SUI, Blair decided to talk to her doctor. She was diagnosed with SUI and began seeking treatment for it. Now, she's on a mission to help other women break the silence about SUI and improve their quality of life.

Speaking Up

SUI is a condition in which the muscles supporting the bladder and urethra have been damaged or weakened. When the urethra isn't in the correct position, it can lose its seal and allow urine to escape when a sudden movement such as a sneeze, cough or laugh puts stress on the bladder.

According to Blair, many women wait years before bringing up the condition with their doctors. "It's basically said that two out of three [women] don't even want to talk to their husbands about it or let alone their doctor," she says. "And then they wait sometimes three to 10 years before they actually go to a doctor and try to do something about it." Blair says she waited about 15 months before confronting her doctor.

The doctor who treated Blair, Dr. Dennis Paul Miller, says women who wait to seek help from a doctor about their incontinence have a noticeable difference in their quality of life. "They stop doing their sports, almost immediately," he says. "They stop going places that they would normally go, and depression becomes more common."

Once Blair "fessed up" to her OB/GYN about having SUI, they began treating the condition by trying a variety of techniques, including biofeedback ("training" the pelvic floor muscles through exercises) and electrical stimulation. When those options did not work for Blair, she went to Dr. Miller and found relief in a minimally-invasive surgical procedure called Gynecare TVT. The treatment consists of a tape-like strip of mesh that is inserted under the urethra, creating a supportive "sling" that is designed to stop urine leakage. Of course, what may work for one person may not work for all, so everyone should discuss their individual symptoms with their physician.

When Blair finally talked with her doctor, she learned that incontinence is a relatively common condition, especially in women who have just given birth. She says she would like to see more incontinence information made available to women before they give birth so they're more aware, as she had no idea this could happen to her.

"I guess I'd even kind of like it [the message about incontinence] to go all the way back to the child birthing classes that you go to," says Blair. "Because ... when it first kind of happened to me, I'm thinking, 'Is this normal? Is it just because I had a kid?' I had no idea. And I think that that's one of the things that's kind of crummy about it ... unless somebody's telling you and they're in your face about it, you just don't know."

Back to Her Regular, Active Self

Since approaching her physician and seeking treatment for incontinence, Blair is back to her normal, active routine. Besides her work as a motivational speaker, TV work and involvement with speed skating (she is on the board of directors for the sport and for a facility in the Milwaukee, Wis. area) Blair also holds another important title – Mom.

"When I'm at home, I'm a mom, and usually Wednesday afternoons I go and help out at my son's class," she says. "I'm the mom class helper, but I'm still very involved in the sport of speed skating ... When I'm at home I'm a mom, and usually when I'm on the road, I'm Bonnie Blair the speed skater for one reason or another," she says, laughing.

Blair's experience with incontinence is just as inspiring as her experience as a champion on the ice. She's living proof that incontinence can be managed and that it doesn't have to stop you from living a happy life.

"I definitely have my quality of life back," says Blair. "And it makes me just feel better about myself and everything else."

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