Breaking barriers | Windows and Mirrors

Spending time in the outdoors has helped veteran Naomi Layco heal physically and mentally after serving in the U.S. Navy.

Last month — just days after her 33rd birthday — Naomi Layco was about three hours into a climb up Mount Baker when the left side of her body started to give.

Her muscles were failing her and she just thought, “Oh my god, I’m on a glacier.”

Layco — who lived in Bothell for two years before relocating back to Honolulu, where she is originally from, in June — concentrated on telling her muscles to contract.

This was a skill she learned after she was hospitalized with an inconclusive virus while she served in the U.S. Navy. The virus attacked both her immune system and her heart and as a result, Layco experienced an onslaught of symptoms including swollen joints and anaphylactic shock. And one day, she woke up paralyzed from the waist down. She regained function of her limbs but was still immobile as she was not able to keep her spine aligned.

Layco said there was never enough time for doctors to diagnose her as new symptoms kept coming. Her body deteriorated and her nerve endings were misfiring and unstable.

“I wasn’t even 27 at that point,” she said.

A life-changing experience

Because of her young age, doctors were concerned about her quality life. She went through 30 procedures and three major surgeries in a three-year window, with her last surgery in 2017. In addition to physical therapy to regain her strength, Layco also worked to reprogram her brain to control her muscles — which is what she found herself doing while on Mount Baker.

The journey that took Layco from the hospital to the side of a glacial mountain started when she discovered No Barriers, an organization whose mission “is to fully unleash the potential of the human spirit,” according to its website. Specifically, Layco discovered No Barriers Warriors, a program that focuses on “improving the lives of veterans with disabilities through curriculum-based experiences in challenging environments,” the website states.

Through the program, Layco went on a nine-day backpacking expedition in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. She was challenged both physically and mentally.

“I was a lot more capable than I thought myself to be,” Layco said.

The experience helped her rebuild her spirit and she voluntarily came off her medications and started outdoor recreation therapy. At this point she was living in Bothell and took advantage of what the region had to offer.

“The Pacific Northwest is beautiful,” Layco said “It feels like it cleanses you.”

Last month’s expedition up Mount Baker was a No Barriers Warriors alumni trip.

A pledge for others

One thing No Barriers asks of its participants is to create a pledge on how they can better themselves and their community.

Layco’s pledge is working to get H.R.2435 passed. If passed, the bipartisan congressional bill would require the secretary of veterans affairs to “establish an interagency task force on the use of public lands to provide medical treatment and therapy to veterans through outdoor recreation,” according to the bill.

Layco said her life changed only when she sought solace outdoors and knows the healing powers they can have.

So it’s no surprise she would pledge to help other veterans have the same healing experience.

Hidden disabilities

Talking with Layco for this piece made me realize that not all disabilities are visible. On the surface, there is nothing to indicate that she has any physical limitations.

But she still experiences pain on a regular basis. The viral infection affected her spine and lower extremities the most and she said sometimes she wakes up in the morning and cannot move — not an ideal position to be in as a single mom with two elementary-aged daughters.

Layco said there have been times when she has parked her vehicle in a disabled parking spot and people have approached her about it because she hasn’t hung her placard yet.

“Most people with disabilities have hidden disabilities. You can’t see it,” said Robert Blumenfeld, associate director of the Alliance of People with Disabilities.

The alliance, which has a location in Redmond as well as in Seattle, is an organization of people with disabilities for people with disabilities. The organization assists people to be as independent as they choose and they work with people of all ages.

Blumenfeld, a Snoqualmie resident, uses a cane at times and said one thing he does whenever he goes to a new building is to assess its accessibility.

“Can I get in? Can I get out?” he said about some of the questions he asks. “Not all buildings are going to be accessible. Not all housing is going to be accessible.”

During my conversation with Blumenfeld, we discussed some other obstacles people with disabilities face on a daily basis — one being geography. He said the alliance’s Seattle office is in a hilly area and does not have any bus routes nearby.

When Blumenfeld mentioned this, it made me realize how much I took for granted as an able-bodied person. While walking up and down hills may be just an annoyance for me, for someone in a wheelchair it presents a real challenge — including some concerns about safety.

Making it to the other side

And safety is important.

When she was climbing Mount Baker and her muscles began failing, Layco had to think about not only whether she would be able to make it to the summit but also whether she would be able to make it back down the mountain.

Because going up a mountain is optional. Coming down is not.

“It was heartbreaking,” Layco said about deciding to turn around and head down.

It was difficult to take her pride off the a pedestal as it wasn’t just her personal safety in question. She was tethered to her fellow climbers.

It took them three more hours to get down the mountain and during that time, Layco said her left leg gave out on her about 10 times.

“It was terrifying,” she said.

In addition, she said in those few hours, the integrity of the ice also changed, which “makes you respect Mother Nature on a whole new level.”

“Mother Nature’s beautiful, but she makes you earn her wonders,” Layco said.

And while she was disappointed about not making it to the summit, she is proud of herself for making it part of the way — especially after doctors told her she would never run again.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at spak@sound