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The Power of Movement for Healing and Mental Health


Melissa Strong was living her dream.

Home was Estes Park, Colorado, gateway to glorious Rocky Mountain National Park.

Her passion was climbing, mostly bouldering, that purist sport of scaling big rocks without ropes, relying on just your fingertips, feet, and crash pads below.

Her career was hospitality, managing a busy restaurant while fantasizing about owning her own place.

Then it happened—the dream and a nightmare.

At 43, she bought an old restaurant and gutted it. On April 2, 2017, Melissa was in her driveway adding decorative touches to wooden legs of the tables for her restaurant, scheduled to open in a few months. She was using a high-voltage woodworking technique called fractal burning to create beautiful river-like “Lichtenberg patterns.”

It had gone well until she absent-mindedly grabbed the electrical leads of the woodburning tool when the 2,000-volt device was plugged in. The buzzing current pulsed through her. She couldn’t scream, couldn’t drop the electrodes, couldn’t move. Cut to black.

She entered an in-between state: “Am I dead or alive?” A forest, a tunnel, a shaft of light, and the presence of a friend and her grandmother, both deceased. She sensed they didn’t want her to go in the tunnel.

She decided she needed to get back to Adam, her husband. “It was like a reverse-tunnel effect, and my eyes opened, and I saw the gravel” of the driveway. “I could scream.”

When Adam, who was inside the house, opened the door, she blurted, “Hospital, now!” and collapsed in his arms. He carried her to his pickup. Her hands “looked like melted wax.” No blood but a horrible smell. Her screams and the speeding truck prompted neighbors to report a possible abduction. The wood-burning machine remained in the driveway, its circuit-breaker tripped.

The accident had sent a massive electrical current through her body, leaving her fingers a mangled, charred, acrid mess. “I have no hands!” she screamed as Adam sped her to the local hospital.

There Melissa was stabilized and airlifted to a hospital in Greeley. “They told me I’d only have four fingers—pinkies and index,” and likely no thumbs, Melissa recalls. Doctors knew her best hope was at the Burn and Frostbite Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

As she was prepped for transfer, a nurse recognized her. She had climbed with Melissa once. “You were amazing,” she told Melissa. “So strong.” As Melissa blinked back tears, the nurse said the doctors in Aurora could work miracles.

Melissa recalls her first night in the hospital: “You could see charred burnt bones sticking out of what was my hands. There was not a lot of blood, but what was left of my palms looked like melted wax.”

Trauma and Response

That nurse was right. Surgeons can work medical miracles, but a lot depends on the patient. How do they respond emotionally to devastating trauma? Are they engaged with their medical team?

Will they try to resume their prior lifestyle? Will they keep moving—literally—or succumb to common reactions like fatigue, exhaustion, and emotional numbness? Many retreat.

Melissa Strong always had goals—getting her restaurant up and running, solving the next climbing challenge. Anyone who saw her on the rock knew she was tenacious. Anyone who saw her work a restaurant shift knew she never stopped moving.

But could she be the same without the thumbs and fingers she relied on, on the job and on a boulder?

Her active lifestyle gave her a leg up, so to speak. We know physical activity is good medicine.

Studies show that exercise is nearly as effective in treating depression as medication.1 Moreover, researchers say it improves mental health, boosts immune function, promotes a sense of well-being and control. This in turn makes a patient more likely to take good care of herself and stick to a regimen that may lead to a better outcome.

Melissa’s doctors, who would indeed perform some miraculous procedures, agree that her story is a testament to grit, determination, and optimism in the face of grievous injury—and to the importance of movement and mindset for physical healing and mental health.

“Analyze, then overcome.” That was the climber’s approach that Melissa took in her recovery, says Ashley Ignatiuk, MD, her primary hand surgeon.

But first you scream.

Surgery and Prognosis

Ignatiuk was the hand surgeon on call when Melissa arrived. “Immediately I could tell she was a motivated patient,” he says. “But when I saw her hands, it was hard to tell what I could do because they were so fried—literally charred.”

Thumbs were the priority. All the tissue on the palm side was dead. “The only way to keep the thumbs would be to give new tissue, to resurface what was lost.”

For all the suddenness of the accident, electrical burns are a slow-motion emergency. They don’t “declare themselves” entirely at first; the damage gets worse as days go by. Ignatiuk took a needle and poked the tips of her thumbs. “When I saw some blood, that’s when I realized I could do something for her.”

Sewing injured body parts to healthy tissue—at the groin or chest, usually—is the typical move to allow healing bloodflow into the smaller vessels of the extremities. But when it’s both hands?

Ignatiuk says it was Melissa’s idea (she thinks it was his) to sew each thumb to the opposite forearm. He and the resident plastic surgeon, Seth TeBockhorst, MD, performed the procedure, partially amputating four of Melissa’s fingers and salvaging as much flesh as possible.

“We lifted flaps from both of her forearms, put her into an ‘I dream of Jeannie’ pose, and then put the tissue from her forearms on her thumbs,” Ignatiuk says, “and left her like that for 3 weeks.”

Surgeons Ignatiuk and TeBockhorst sewed Melissa’s thumbs to her forearms to ensure blood flow to the injuries.

TeBockhorst is a climber, and when he first saw Adam and Melissa, both lean and outdoorsy, “I knew them for climbers by sight.” (It was mutual, Melissa recalls: “He was wearing an Arc’teryx jacket.”)

Before the big surgery (dead tissue had already been removed), TeBockhorst asked if she had any questions. “And I said yeah,” Melissa recalls. “Will I ever be able to climb V10 again?”

In bouldering, the difficulty of routes is graded from V1 (easy) to V16 (ridiculous). A V10 is professional level.2

The doctor looked at her. “You’ve climbed V10?” Adam chimed in: “She’s climbed harder than that.”

“It was important to me that my surgeons knew that climbing was important to me, that I am an athlete,” Melissa says.

TeBockhorst was careful to balance compassion and honesty. “I had very little expectation that she would ever climb at any real level again.”

Pain and Uncertainty

Melissa awoke in excruciating pain. Her lean, strong arms were now immobilized. Just moving was a study in pain.

Meds made her nauseous. For three weeks, she felt helpless, unable to brush her teeth or hair, wipe her butt, or feed herself. Sleeping was scary—what if she tugged her arms apart? (She tried once; no damage.)

Friends made her thankful. An outpouring of support from the climbing community fanned the embers of hope within. Adam and her family stood by to help the woman who had previously preferred to do everything for herself.

Reactions to trauma vary widely. Ask any doctor, or consult a textbook called Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Initial reactions can include “exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion,” among others. It can include a “loss of hope,” the thought that normal life events won’t happen, and a heightened fear that life could suddenly end.

Melissa knew about life ending suddenly—she’d seen the tunnel. Loss of hope—a little, maybe, but her gratefulness at being alive was dominant. Normal life events not happening? Sure, there was some of that.

“I thought about rock climbing because it was a part of me,” she says. “It was a sad thought because I didn’t have a lot of optimism on that front. At that point you’re not too greedy—you’re happy someone is helping.”

You’ve heard of the journey of a thousand miles. The first step, quite literally, is movement.

From her hospital room, she could see the Rockies. Part tease, part inspiration. She needed to take some kind of first step now. She was told of an exercise bike in another room and went to find it. She rested her crossed arms on the handlebars and started pedaling.

“I wasn’t accomplishing much, but I was still moving my legs,” she says. “And I would stare at my thumb that was dying, clearly dying. It was turning black where it was sewed to me. And I was just trying to will blood flow to it.” Back in her room, she did sit-ups with her sewn arms across her chest.

“Instead of shutting down I was trying to stay present,” Melissa says.

For stress reduction, this focus on the here-and-now “is almost a form of meditation, and that can be very therapeutic,” says James Alan Blumenthal, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University’s medical school and author of landmark research showing the effectiveness of exercise on depression. 3

As a hand surgeon, Ignatiuk has shepherded countless patients through very visible injuries that are a blow to the psyche. “People catastrophize over a tiny little fingertip amputation,” he says. When rehabilitating, some are afraid to use an injured finger, delaying recovery.

Melissa, on the other hand, “started her road to recovery immediately,” says Ignatiuk. “If you get into a state where you’re in depression, you have a catabolic state, you’re not going to heal your wounds properly.”

An article1 by Stanford researchers that was coincidentally published within weeks of her accident concluded that mindset is crucial to healing, as are a doctor’s support and the patient’s expectations. Melissa was three-for-three.

Melissa found an exercise bike in the hospital and returned to ride it each day. “I wasn’t winning any races,” she says. “But it still got the blood flowing and gave me a purpose, something to do.”

Exercise and Healing

Doctors know that exercise speeds healing—that’s been shown in repeated studies that were summarized in a 2021 review by Iranian researchers.4 Moderate exercise boosts immunity and the endocrine system, which is crucial to wound healing. And while healing requires inflammation, too much of it slows the process. People who exercise generally have lower levels of stress-related markers in the blood, a sign of inflammation. Bonus: Less inflammation can mean less pain.

Moderate aerobic exercise can act as an antioxidant, helping the body generate blood vessels to nourish new tissue. Low-intensity endurance exercise seems to raise levels of “endothelial progenitor cells” that help regenerate the lining of blood vessels. Moreover, exercise helps provide oxygen to wounded tissue, helping to synthesize connective tissue while also preventing infection.

But exercise can help mental health too, though there’s much less awareness around that – and less focus on mental health for recovering from physical injuries, even though research shows it can help.

At its simplest, movement is a form of distraction. “You don’t think about negative things,” Blumenthal says. “You focus on the present, not thinking about what happened or what could happen in the future.”

In a deeper sense, exercise conveys to patients “a sense of mastery and control,” he says. “They feel, ‘I’m doing something to improve my health. I’m doing something for me that I have control over.” Psychiatrists call this “self-efficacy,” which can lead to greater confidence and a sense of wellbeing.

The physiological explanation for exercise’s benefits isn’t entirely clear, he says, beyond the endorphin release by exercise, which improves brain chemistry and lifts mood. But anecdotal evidence abounds, Blumenthal says: “People who have had a significant injury or loss, whether it be physical or emotional, immensely benefit from physical activity.”

Even Melissa’s easygoing cycling pace helped, he surmised: “The incremental benefit of physical activity really begins when a person just starts a program. Even a low level of physical activity is better than nothing,”

TeBockhorst says the benefits of exercise are “innumerable and immeasurable” for both mind and body. After an injury and surgery “those benefits are only amplified. It’s the single best thing patients can do for themselves.”

Melissa seemed instinctively to know this. And yet, as she pedaled the bike, she couldn’t help but look at her left thumb turning black.

After three weeks, the surgeons detached her thumbs from her arms, amputated that left thumb tip, used skin from elsewhere on her body to cover remaining nubs and her palms, and bandaged it all up again.

Melissa kept up her exercise routine until it was time to take off the bandages.

Melissa with her doctors, Seth TeBockhorst (left) and Ashley Ignatiuk (right).

Tomorrow and the Next Day

“When they showed me my hands for the first time, I was like, ‘You’re kidding me. We’re done?’ But we weren’t done.”

Surgeons saw healthy pink skin and quietly rejoiced. But Melissa saw “Frankenstein-stitched baseball mitts.” They encouraged her to use her rebuilt hands, so she asked for a pen and paper.

“Hello, my name is Melissa Strong!” she wrote. “These are my first words written with my new hands J. One day I will climb again!!! And probably will cry a lot along the way J which is OK!”

On May 9, the doctors removed Melissa’s bandages. That same day, she grabbed a pen and wrote her first words since the accident.

She tears up when she tells that anecdote. As a child in Massachusetts, Melissa says, she cried all the time. And as tough an athlete as she is as an adult, she’s not superwoman.

The accident “was absolutely devastating for her. But I never saw her cry,” Ignatiuk says. “She just kept asking more and more questions. You could just tell: She wanted to figure it out.”

Oh, she cried, Melissa says—just not around her doctors. “I’m good at compartmentalizing. I would take that thought of climbing that was making me sad, let it come out of the box. I would talk about it with my husband if I needed to, and that’s when I would cry.”

A Vanderbilt University study of 100 years of research5 found that a positive attitude is crucial to handling stress and healing. Among the keys are knowledge (check), inner resources (check), and social support (check). Melissa’s friends were always there. When the climbing rangers she volunteered with at Rocky Mountain National Park called, she asked that they hold her spot.

Meanwhile, she was distracted with sourcing materials for the restaurant: lighting, paint colors, tiles, menus, everything. “I had to open this restaurant. I had a loan, I had employees,” she says. “That was my biggest focus, besides putting all my energy into being positive and hopeful for my best outcome.”

There were eight surgeries in all, literally fleshing out her now-shortened left thumb, and later repairing weakened bones in it that broke, and dealing with an infection.

“She’s my best patient ever, no question,” Ignatiuk says. “The attitude is the most important. If you have a defeatist attitude, you’re not going to persevere.”

Whether a patient’s outlook—her mind, really—can somehow cause lower inflammation and higher antioxidant levels is the “million-dollar question,” says Lewina Lee, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University’s medical school who studies how optimism affects health.

It’s not just biology or behavior—”they’re probably all acting together,” says Lee, who is a clinical investigator at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System.

An optimistic person tends to exercise more, eat better, and stick to a recovery regimen—which is why they have better outcomes, Lee says. “In doing so, you may have kind of better bodily chemistry, your inflammation levels may be lower, and your body may react more favorably to your treatment because you have greater adherence.”

It’s a virtuous cycle: biological and behavioral pathways are “all probably acting in concert, or that one is leading to another,” she says. Optimists tend to have lower levels of inflammation, better endothelial function, higher levels of good cholesterol and lower levels of triglycerides, she says. But it’s just an association: “You see the two things tracking side by side, but we can’t really say that that causes lower inflammation.”

Moreover, when an optimist suffers trauma, she will “focus less on how dire the consequences are, or the pain, and orient herself to the bigger goals.”

“We know that optimistic people tend to be more persistent in reaching their goals,” Lee says, and they may view an injury “more as a challenge rather than a threat.”

Back home, Adam bought Melissa a Peloton bike. As her hands healed, she shopped for new holds for their home climbing wall, ones that her now-smaller hands could grip. About three months after the accident, she was doing “pull-ins” on their home wall—extending her arms and pulling her body to the wall.

By six months, she was climbing easy routes. A year later, she handled a simple traverse on a favorite boulder in the national park. What was once a warmup now wrung her out, physically and emotionally.

But she was back.

Melissa was told she would likely never climb again. Since then, she has climbed boulders rated as high as V7. She’s now pushing V8.

Patience and Acceptance

The night of the restaurant’s opening, Adam turned to his wife and said, “You must be happy. Your dreams are coming true.”

“Yeah,” she replied, “but in my dreams I always have my hands.”

Adam and Melissa used to travel the world to climb: South Africa, Switzerland, Italy. Winters were spent guiding tours at Hueco Tanks, a legendary bouldering site outside of El Paso, Texas.

Nearly six years after the accident, with the pandemic fading and the restaurant (called Bird & Jim) thriving, Melissa is expanding her business with a new breakfast-and-lunch spot and event venue.

The climbing rangers in the national park held her spot, and she has resumed volunteering with them. She skipped only one winter in Texas. She’s climbing V7 routes and pushing V8.

“What this accident taught me is patience, acceptance,” she says. “It forced me to ask for help—first in personal care and then with the restaurant.”

The Peloton is crucial, she says. “Every part of me has to be 10 times stronger than what I was in the past to overcome the loss of fingers and thumbs. Your core, your legs, everything has to be super-strong because my grip isn’t as good. I fall off the boulder problems a lot because I don’t have the tops of my fingers to really get on those holds.”

She had to rewire her brain, which would warn her, “Don’t grab that hold, you don’t have fingers!” But each year, she’s able to cling to progressively smaller holds.

Ignatiuk says her always-strong attitude evolved “once we had the certainty of what the final result of her hands would be, once she came to that closure and she accepted it. And when she got back to climbing, that’s when she really accelerated.”

Her athlete’s approach to improvement (“I couldn’t do this yesterday, but I can today”) set her up for success, Ignatiuk says. “Now she’s kind of on a new course, and she has to see her improvements in a completely different way.”

A climber is a special kind of person, he says. It’s mostly down to perseverance. “The mindset. Focusing on the good, not perseverating on the bad. Her inquisitive nature, the problem-solving skills, overcoming adversity, and having a support group.”

“It was the perfect mix.”

Melissa in her restaurant Bird & Jim, two years after the accident.


Melissa Strong, owner of Bird & Jim, and a rock climber in Estes Park, Colorado

Ashley Ignatiuk, M.D., hand specialist and assistant professor of plastic surgery at Rutgers Medical School

Seth TeBockhorst, MD, plastic surgeon at University of Colorado School of Medicine

James Alan Blumenthal, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University’s medical school

Lewina Lee, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Boston University’s medical school

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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Limitation of liability

To the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, in no event will Cure of Mind LP, its affiliates, directors, officers, employees, agents, suppliers or licensors be liable to any person for any indirect, incidental, special, punitive, cover or consequential damages (including, without limitation, damages for lost profits, revenue, sales, goodwill, use of content, impact on business, business interruption, loss of anticipated savings, loss of business opportunity) however caused, under any theory of liability, including, without limitation, contract, tort, warranty, breach of statutory duty, negligence or otherwise, even if the liable party has been advised as to the possibility of such damages or could have foreseen such damages. To the maximum extent permitted by applicable law, the aggregate liability of Cure of Mind LP and its affiliates, officers, employees, agents, suppliers and licensors relating to the services will be limited to an amount no greater than one dollar or any amounts actually paid in cash by you to Cure of Mind LP for the prior one month period prior to the first event or occurrence giving rise to such liability. The limitations and exclusions also apply if this remedy does not fully compensate you for any losses or fails of its essential purpose.


You agree to indemnify and hold Cure of Mind LP and its affiliates, directors, officers, employees, agents, suppliers and licensors harmless from and against any liabilities, losses, damages or costs, including reasonable attorneys’ fees, incurred in connection with or arising from any third party allegations, claims, actions, disputes, or demands asserted against any of them as a result of or relating to your Content, your use of the Services or any willful misconduct on your part.


All rights and restrictions contained in this Agreement may be exercised and shall be applicable and binding only to the extent that they do not violate any applicable laws and are intended to be limited to the extent necessary so that they will not render this Agreement illegal, invalid or unenforceable. If any provision or portion of any provision of this Agreement shall be held to be illegal, invalid or unenforceable by a court of competent jurisdiction, it is the intention of the parties that the remaining provisions or portions thereof shall constitute their agreement with respect to the subject matter hereof, and all such remaining provisions or portions thereof shall remain in full force and effect.

Dispute resolution

The formation, interpretation, and performance of this Agreement and any disputes arising out of it shall be governed by the substantive and procedural laws of Greece without regard to its rules on conflicts or choice of law and, to the extent applicable, the laws of Greece. The exclusive jurisdiction and venue for actions related to the subject matter hereof shall be the courts located in Greece, and you hereby submit to the personal jurisdiction of such courts. You hereby waive any right to a jury trial in any proceeding arising out of or related to this Agreement. The United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods does not apply to this Agreement.


You may not assign, resell, sub-license or otherwise transfer or delegate any of your rights or obligations hereunder, in whole or in part, without our prior written consent, which consent shall be at our own sole discretion and without obligation; any such assignment or transfer shall be null and void. We are free to assign any of its rights or obligations hereunder, in whole or in part, to any third party as part of the sale of all or substantially all of its assets or stock or as part of a merger.

Changes and amendments

We reserve the right to modify this Agreement or its terms related to the Services at any time at our discretion. When we do, we will revise the updated date at the bottom of this page, post a notification within the Services. We may also provide notice to you in other ways at our discretion, such as through the contact information you have provided.

An updated version of this Agreement will be effective immediately upon the posting of the revised Agreement unless otherwise specified. Your continued use of the Services after the effective date of the revised Agreement (or such other act specified at that time) will constitute your consent to those changes.

Acceptance of these terms

You acknowledge that you have read this Agreement and agree to all its terms and conditions. By accessing and using the Services you agree to be bound by this Agreement. If you do not agree to abide by the terms of this Agreement, you are not authorized to access or use the Services.

Contacting us

If you have any questions, concerns, or complaints regarding this Agreement, we encourage you to contact us using the details below:


This document was last updated on August 27, 2023

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Informed Consent for Psychotherapy, Nutritional or Medical Counselling


The purpose of this form is to provide you with information about psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and medical counseling and to obtain your consent to participate in these treatments. These services involve professional relationships between you and your therapist, nutritionist, and medical doctor to address your emotional, nutritional, and medical needs. This form is intended to give you information that will help you make an informed decision about whether or not to engage in these treatments.

Therapist Qualifications:

Your therapist is a licensed mental health professional who has completed an advanced degree in psychology or a related field and has been trained to provide psychotherapy. Your nutritionist and medical doctor are also licensed professionals with expertise in their respective fields. They are committed to providing you with the highest quality of care possible.

Goals and Objectives:

The goals of psychotherapy are to help you overcome emotional or psychological difficulties that are causing distress in your life. Nutritional counseling aims to support your dietary needs, promote healthy eating habits, and address specific nutritional concerns. Medical counseling focuses on providing you with medical guidance, treatment options, and managing your overall health.

Treatment Methods:

Your therapist will use a variety of treatment methods in psychotherapy, including talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, mindfulness techniques, or other approaches. Your nutritionist will provide nutritional education, create personalized meal plans, and offer guidance on making healthy food choices. Your medical doctor will assess your medical history, perform necessary examinations, refer you for lab tests and recommend appropriate medical treatments.

Risks and Benefits:

Psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and medical counseling can be beneficial in various ways, such as improving your emotional well-being, enhancing your nutrition, and promoting better physical health. However, there are also some risks associated with these treatments. Risks may include experiencing uncomfortable emotions during therapy, potential changes in your relationships, and the possibility of addressing challenging nutritional or medical issues.


Your therapist, nutritionist, and medical doctor are committed to protecting your privacy and will keep all information discussed during your sessions confidential, with some exceptions. These exceptions include situations where there is an imminent risk of harm to yourself or others, or where there is a legal obligation to disclose information.

Duration and Frequency of Sessions:

The length and frequency of therapy sessions, nutritional counseling sessions, and medical counseling appointments will depend on your individual needs and goals. Typically, therapy and counseling sessions are scheduled weekly or biweekly and last for approximately 50 minutes. While nutritional counselling appointments last up 45 minutes and medical counseling appointments last up to 30 minutes and their frequency may vary.

Fees and Payment:

Fees are charged on a session-by-session or appointment basis and may be covered by insurance if this is available to you.

For insurance coverage, it is important you understand your insurance policy and coverage. You should forward your detailed invoice from Cure of Mind to your insurance provider and discuss with them whether the services provided by the therapist, nutritionist, and medical doctor are eligible for coverage as per the terms of your insurance plan. 


By ticking the box “Informed Consent” on the booking form, you acknowledge that you have read and understand the information provided and that you have had the opportunity to read the information about psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and medical counseling provided on Cure of Mind and to ask questions in our Help Center, or during your first appointment with one of our professionals. You consent to participate in these treatments and understand that you may withdraw your consent at any time.

We respect your privacy

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