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Pilates COREterly

Fall / Winter 2011

Personal Pilates

From the Aftermath of Tragedy Comes New Hope: Suzi Hileman’s Story

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story also appears in the 2012 Balanced Body catalog.

On January 8, 2011 Suzi Hileman decided to take her young friend and neighbor, 9–year–old Christina–Taylor Green, on a field trip. The two were very close had gone on many outings together, but today would be a little different. Christina was involved in student council, and Suzi thought that seeing civics live–in–action would be fun and educational. They drove out to a nearby shopping center in Tucson, AZ, and were in line to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was there talking with her constituents. In an instant everything changed. A man opened fire on the crowd with a semi–automatic weapon in an assassination attempt on the Congresswoman. Suzi instinctively shielded Christina and told her to run. Suzi was shot three times and went down. Christina had also been shot and, heartbreakingly, was killed along with five others. Congresswoman Giffords was shot in the head and is still recovering.

During the next eight months Suzi underwent a painful period of healing – both physically and emotionally – in which Pilates not only played a major part in getting her back on her feet, but also served as a springboard for a program she created to honor the memory of her fallen friend.

The Recovery

One bullet tore through my chest and out my back, nicking my lung and causing it to collapse. A second went from the rear of my quadriceps out the other side of my leg. The third went through my backside and came out the front of my thigh. That’s where it got messy. That bullet took some pieces of my hip along with it and shattered my acetabulum.*

The next few days in the hospital were pretty hazy but I remember hearing the doctor say that I needed a hip replacement. I thought “No way, I’m too young for that.” Fortunately after doing some exploratory surgery he found he could repair the hip – not replace it.

While that was indeed good news, the downside was that bone takes a long time to heal, and I was put on a 12 week program where I had to use a walker and could not undertake any weight bearing activities. No activity, coupled with the emotional state I was in, and …well, let’s just say I wasn’t a happy camper.

One of the things I was antsy to do was Pilates, which I had started doing in the early 90’s. I remember shrinking a dress size – not by losing weight, but just by having better body mechanics – and had been a convert ever since. However, I was under doctor’s orders and he didn’t think it was a good idea.

So I waited.

In April 2011 I began traditional physical therapy and while it helped there still was something missing. Shortly thereafter I was released from my doctors care program and – even though still he wasn’t 100 percent sure about it – I made a beeline to Body Works Pilates and owner Kyria Sabin. She and her instructors began working with me. I know it wasn’t an easy job for them.

With their help my body slowly began to come back to me. My left and right hip began to make a connection. The walking mechanics of my injured right leg gradually became even better than my left leg! I truly feel that the assisted movements on the Pilates equipment allowed me to respond so positively to the exercise.

Today if you watch me walk externally it still looks like there’s something wrong. I can’t control that. But I feel better than I look because I have learned to control my body internally. I can control my third and fourth quadrants, I can correctly open and close my lungs, and I can stack my spine up. I don’t need my walker anymore (and my doctor is very impressed at my mobility!). Pilates has returned something that was violently taken away from me. From an emotional and physical standpoint, that’s enormous.

(continued above)

The beginning of GRIN
After the shooting I gained a little notoriety in the media, and with that I acquired somewhat of a public platform. I’m not any smarter than I was before January 8, but people had heard my story and were listening.

For years the idea of the GRIN Program had been floating around in my head (GRIN is acronym standing for Grandparent In Residence, an homage to the Artist in Residence programs at upscale private schools. Yes, I know it is a poorly constructed acronym – but it is certainly better the GINR!). Now that I had some of the public’s ear I decided that I could honor the memory of Christina and get this program off the ground.

I live in Tucson and am at the younger edge of a huge demographic of women who were heavily involved in their communities and their children’s schools before they retired. Many, like myself, still want to contribute. The GRIN program is all about connecting these women with children who need our help.

I wanted to start the program at the Amphitheater School District here in Tucson. This district is in a hardscrabble area where a lot of the kids are immigrants or children of teenage parents. Many don’t have much to do but plug in to their electronics and tune out.

But there are also many who do have higher expectations – they just don’t know what resources are available. GRIN hopes to provide exposure to the kinds of things that middle class kids take for granted. Structured exercise, like Pilates, is one part of a larger program connecting classrooms with colleges, with mentors, with artists and artisans and readers and homework helpers.

There is also a big self–image problem in the district, especially with the young girls. That’s where the Pilates component of GRIN becomes very exciting. My instructor, Kyria Sabin, runs the Fletcher Pilates training program worldwide. She has volunteered to bring her instructor trainees to work with the kids twice a week – forever. And Balanced Body was kind of enough to donate enough equipment to accommodate class sessions of 15 students and four instructors.

After one session the girls noticed a difference in their posture! The district has been great to work with and I’m really excited to see where we are in a year.

Sometimes good can come out of something bad. Christina was one of those kids who, after spending time with her, you knew was heading for big things in her life. She’s gone and the world is a far, far lesser place. But I have a responsibility to her. We got into this together and we’re going to continue it together. I want to give the kids in this area and beyond the possibility of attaining those big things in life that Christina would have accomplished if her time hadn’t been cut short. I owe that to her memory.

*The acetabulum is a concave surface of the pelvis that meets with the head of the femur, forming the hip joint.

Learn more abut the GRIN program at