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Her Belief in Breath

It takes lungs and heart to say Mary Fouse's story

Breath is life.

In moments of worry, panic, fear, or sadness, gulps of oxygen provide physical sustenance—a calm, a slowing, a reminder to restore balance.

Mary Fouse, owner of Just Breathe Massage Therapy, encourages her patients to focus on that life-giving breath.

“The connection to our breath, on and off the massage table, is so important,” Mary explained.  “We go subconsciously throughout our days and realize we haven’t taken a deep breath for 12 to 15 hours. We compartmentalize. We move through life and we don’t make time for ourselves unless we schedule it.”

Mary knows, on multiple levels, the importance of life-sustaining breath: she was born with cystic fibrosis. And though that diagnosis comes with massive challenges, she’s always been active: playing volleyball and running track in high school, currently running six miles a day.

Taking care of her body has never been an afterthought, making her career path a natural fit. After high school, she pursued her life-long dream of becoming a massage therapist, starting her own practice by age 19.

And she worked her tail off: building a clientele, giving complimentary chair massages at gyms and food banks, and veterans’ centers in her off-hours.

“Anything to get my name out there,” said Mary.

But the grueling schedule took its toll. By 25, Mary’s lung function declined—so much so that her medical team recommended a double lung transplant. When she arrived in Seattle that fall, she only weighed 82 pounds. Her lungs were operating at 25 percent capacity.

“The surgeon said, ‘You were so sick. If you weren’t so positive, I don’t think you would have lived,’” said Mary.

She returned to Missoula with a new lease on life and a fresh passion for helping others, starting Just Breathe a year after her transplant surgery. Many of her patients have their own share of medical challenges.

“The universe keeps giving me patient after patient with ailments,” she explained. “I haven’t climbed the same mountains as they have but I’ve been on the same trail.”

Mary knows, intimately, the rigor of caring for a body that requires precise care. She takes 15 pills a day. She exercises religiously. There are no days off with a terminal illness.

And then, much like the cold virus that triggered the string of illnesses leading to the need for a lung transplant, Mary hit another health speed bump.

Last summer she had a heart attack while playing in the backyard with her daughter.

“I went in the house and was leaning over the counter. I thought, ‘Damn, those strawberries are not settling with me,’” Mary said. “It wasn’t until my arm started to hurt that I googled ‘symptoms of heart attack in women’ that I realized what was going on.”

A heart attack didn’t make sense: she’d devoted herself to health. Her doctor couldn’t explain it.

“It forced me to walk the walk of what I’ve based my whole company on for 17 years,” she said. “The meaning of health is multi-faceted. Hopefully you get a little piece of each part of the pie every day. But if you don’t, you give yourself grace, take a breath, and come back tomorrow.”

Mary has always set out to accomplish goals. One could argue it’s that very drive that helped her recover from a lung transplant—a procedure that came with no guarantees.

But Mary said her choice was to continue down the path of restrictions and shallow breaths or to take a chance on her health and her dreams: whether post-transplant or post-heart attack.

Mary’s massage work, along with classes she teaches, are her ways of encouraging others to take chances—and take care—of their one life.

“Just do the thing. If you want to take the class, take the class. If you want to push boundaries, push boundaries. If you want to take a nap, take a nap,” she said. “Stop listening to the world telling you what their idea is for you.”

She realizes that the balance between going after life and taking care of your body can sometimes feel at odds. But she points out that tomorrow is never promised, and for her, that carries a hefty weight.

“People say they wouldn’t have been able to do what I did,” Mary said. “But you can choose to suffocate or you can choose to jump. When people are faced with something more serious in life, I hope they’ll jump.”


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