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Conquering mountains and MS

Tony Moro selfie of sunrise atop Mount Kilimanjaro
U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Tony Moro snaps a selfie of the sunrise at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Though he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nearly 10 years ago, Moro has fought the disease with diet, exercise and treatments from the Milwaukee VA.

Looking for inspiration? Look no further than Anthony Moro.

The U.S. Marine Corps Veteran recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, then flew to Japan a week later and summited Mount Fuji.

Here’s the kicker: He’s had multiple sclerosis for nearly 10 years. And according to his MRI scans, he shouldn’t be walking, let alone climbing mountains.

Oh, and there’s more: After his diagnosis led to his medical discharge from the Marines, Moro went on to start his own gym and worked as a strength and conditioning coach for Navy SEALs.

He’s done similar work with the Air Force and the Milwaukee Bucks dance team, and he’s pursuing a similar role with the Saudi Arabia soccer team.

Moro is determined to do everything he can to beat MS. He altered his diet, kicked up his exercise regimen and gets regular checkups and treatments through the neurology team at the Milwaukee VA.

“MS got diagnosed with Tony Moro,” he said. “I’m the worst diagnosis that MS has ever gotten.”

And right now, Tony Moro is beating the tar out of MS.

“He has a very inspiring story, and resiliency is very paramount to success with MS,” Milwaukee VA neurologist Dr. Sam Hooshmand said. “He’s a non-stop force. He just continues to go.”

The result of his latest appointment in November was positive, with everything stable.

“One of the reasons he does so well is his lifestyle,” Hooshmand said. “He exercises regularly and has a very well-balanced and nutritious diet, which is very important in multiple sclerosis therapy.

“He wants to make sure he does everything possible. He is a big advocate for himself, which is essential for MS. He has a truly positive mentality, and he knows how important diet and exercise go into long-term MS. He’s bought into this holistic, comprehensive care plan.”

“Being as active as possible and eating as clean as possible is great,” Moro said. “And I listen to my neurologists and take the medicines they tell me to take.”

Beating expectations

MS is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system, Hooshmand said. The often-debilitating condition has no known cure or cause, though treatments continue to improve, helping MS patients lead long, full lives.

MRI scans are key to diagnosing and tracking MS. Hooshmand noted that Moro’s scans show a severe lesion load in his brain and spinal cord and a high amount of scarring.

But you wouldn’t know that by looking at him.

“It’s truly remarkable how well he’s doing despite his MRI burden” Hooshmand said. “The typical person with his MRI wouldn’t have his level of functionality. So our goal with Anthony is to make sure he doesn’t catch up to his MRI.”

During Moro’s last appointment, Hooshmand held him up as an example.

“He (Hooshmand) said, ‘If I didn’t see you standing here right now, I wouldn’t believe you could be standing here right now,’” Moro said. “And that’s very humbling. I’m grateful for what the VA has done for me.”

From rock bottom to mountaintops

Moro, 34, joined the Marines in 2006 and planned to make it his career. He served with the Third and Fourth Force Recon and fought in Sangin Valley in Afghanistan in2011 — considered one of the most intense campaigns of the war — and also served in the South Pacific and northern Europe.

But he woke up one day while on leave and couldn’t see.

“My eyes just started going blurry, like I was underwater,” he said. “By the end of the second day, it was like someone had sprayed a fire extinguisher (in front of me).”

He went to an eye doctor, who immediately sent him to a hospital, where he spent a week in the intensive care unit and was diagnosed with MS.

He hid the diagnosis for as long as he could, but after about six months, he was exposed and forced to take medical retirement from the military.

The MS diagnosis was a massive body blow to Moro, who prided himself on his physical fitness.

“(I was a) lifelong athlete, and now my body was trying to kill me,” he said, saying he survived a helicopter crash and hellish fighting in Sangin. “None of that could do anything to me. But then my own body was betraying me.”

Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder — not from combat, but from his diagnosis, he said — set in. He returned to Wisconsin with plans of going to college and playing football. But the MS was relentless, continuing to affect his vision and paralyzing his right leg.

He spent about a year “feeling sorry for myself,” he said. Then he went to a wedding attended by many of his Marine buddies, and the tough love from them helped him change his mindset.

“Everybody else in my life was babying me, telling me it’s OK to be weak,” he said. “That day I was weak, but they knew me well enough to say, ‘Suck it up.’ That changed my life.”

That led Moro to the gym, where he started using a rower — “something I couldn’t fall off of,” he said.

Before long, he had designed his own exercise regimen using the rower, and soon moved on to “every kind of kettlebell training there was.”

But his determination wasn’t just physical. He enrolled at Concordia University and began studying exercise physiology, learning everything he could. He made the football team, playing alongside his brother.

He earned his bachelor’s degree and went to work as head personal trainer for the Milwaukee Bucks dance team. That led to similar stints with the Navy SEALs and the Air Force as well as the Chicago Bears and Blackhawks. He opened his own gym and earned his master’s degree. He’s now eyeing a doctorate, studying neuro-mechanics and health and human performance.

“I’m trying to figure out the whole puzzle,” he said. “My first desire was to be an athlete. But then I had to figure out how I can be an athlete with MS.”

Conquering mountains

His latest motivation — climbing mountains — is borne from his military buddies, who thrive on physical challenges.

“I see them doing all this cool stuff, and I want to do that with them for as long as possible,” he said.

So in early September, he flew to Africa to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. It took him seven days, but he was the first in his group to reach the summit.

He said he was motivated by news of the cancer death of a military buddy from Appleton.

“I saw that text, and I grabbed a guide and a porter and said, ‘Let’s go now, and we’re not stopping,’” he said.

A week later, he was on his way to Okinawa when his flight got delayed in Tokyo. So he called a buddy there and said, “Let’s go climb Fuji.”

But fatigue and MS were taking their toll. Moro told his friend they’d have to take it slow. But they did it.

“Just one foot in front of the other,” he said. “It was a really bad day.”

That climb took about 14 hours, with the duo finishing after dark.

Moro’s adventures impressed the MS team at the Milwaukee VA.

“I was blown away,” Hooshmand said. “It’s a testament to his overall grit and resiliency, and his positive attitude serves him well in living with MS.”

Julie Penneau, the nurse champion for the MS clinic, agreed.

“He’s pretty amazing,” she said. “Our patients struggle so much. If they have good role models (like Moro), it can help them through difficult times.”

Next up for Moro is summiting Aconcagua in the Andes, the highest mountain in South America. He hopes to tackle that in February. That would give him two of the “Seven Summits” — the highest mountains on each of the continents. Moro plans to conquer them all.

And his team at the Milwaukee VA is supporting him, every step of the way.

“I support all of his goals,” Hooshmand said. “Our whole team wants to make sure we keep people living with MS as healthy as possible so they achieve their goals. Folks like Anthony can be an inspiration for others living with MS. I’m excited to see what his next adventure is.”

“Our team is inspired by all of our MS patients,” Penneau said. “They’re not all climbing Kilimanjaro or Fuji, but they are climbing mountains, figurately speaking. I’m inspired by all of our patients every day.”

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