On one early morning in March 2017, Antonio Barbera was the doctor on duty at a hospital in Denver and got a call to deliver a pair of twins.
The new mother had traveled across the mountains from the Western Slope, and the medical staff had been up all night waiting for the babies to come. The first arrived uneventfully, but the second was in a breech position and required a complicated extraction. At around 6:45 a.m. that morning, Barbera asked the staff to be silent, closed his eyes to focus, and performed the procedure. Cries of new life from the baby soon rang out, and cries of joy from the adults followed.
“I came home walking on a cloud. I mean, wow – it was a beautiful, beautiful day,” Barbera said.
A few hours later on the very same day, Barbera, still on a cloud, decided to go play pingpong. But when he reached down to pick up a ball, his hand landed in the wrong spot, inches away from where the ball sat. That evening, Barbera’s left arm lost all feeling, as if it disappeared.
It didn’t return from paralysis until nine months later.
Barbera knew from a 2016 diagnosis that he had multiple sclerosis, or MS, and this was another flare-up. MS is an autoimmune disease where one’s own body attacks the protective sheath that covers nerve fibers, called myelin, and inhibits the brain’s ability to communicate with other parts of the body. The cause of MS is unknown, and a cure for it has not yet been discovered.
For 31 years as an obstetrician-gynecologist, Barbera provided care for thousands of people, from his home country of Italy to Fort Collins. When use of his arm disappeared and it was unclear if it would ever return, he was forced to give up the job that he loved.
“My job was not a job for me; it was my life. I had been a physician since I was 23, and I never thought to end my career at the age of 55 because of something like this,” Barbera said.
A study funded by the National MS Society estimates that nearly 1 million people in the United States live with the disease. Many people have similarly jarring experiences when they discover their condition. One day, they believe themselves to be in good health, and the next day their lives are changed forever.
Without a cure, treatments of the degenerative disease focus on mitigating symptoms and slowing their progression, which often worsens over time. Physical therapy is a common form of treatment, where the idea is to retrain the brain to operate parts of the body and perform certain activities that MS makes difficult.
Barbera’s arm came back to life in late 2017, but he began suffering from a feeling of compression in his chest, which he calls an “elephant,” and still does to this day.
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Barbera picked up a pingpong paddle again and purchased a table for his home. One day while he was playing, he felt something unexpected.
“I started playing a little bit of pingpong in my garage and I felt something strange, and I didn’t realize what it was. So I kept playing the following days and, boom – I realized that this elephant was leaving me alone, it was sitting on a chair in the corner,” Barbera said.
Barbera learned that for some mysterious reason, table tennis helped to relieve one of his primary MS symptoms, which he hadn’t found in other forms of therapy. The discovery was like a lightbulb that needed to be shined for others.
“At that point I said, ‘OK, what can I do now with this? Can I share my experience with other people with multiple sclerosis?’ … I decided to found a nonprofit organization called Table Tennis Connections.”
Barbera first looked for other organizations that were using pingpong as a form of neurotherapy and found next to nothing. He saw one group on the West Coast, one on the East, and one in England, all of which were targeted for people with Parkinson’s disease. Noticing a gap in services, he saw an opportunity to help people locally and make himself useful to others again.
“When I was forced to stop work, I personally felt useless,” Barbera said. “Through pingpong, I really discovered a new path, a new challenge for myself, for my own brain, and also a new possibility to offer a service to people again. That was, for me, very motivating.”
Around the same time, a table tennis champion in Lima, Peru was grappling with her own MS diagnosis. Francesca Vargas, who won multiple national and South American titles as a teenager and adult, took a trip to visit a friend in Denver last year to take her mind off her health. There she met Barbera, whom her friend happened to be coaching in table tennis. After hearing what Barbera was doing with the nonprofit, she decided to leave her life in Peru and coach in Colorado.
“I think we are doing a great job here. And to be part of this is something that I will always remember in my life … because the coincidence of meeting Antonio and working in this program is very special,” Vargas said.
Together, Barbera and Vargas run the primary function of Table Tennis Connections, the NeuroPong program, which they began offering about a year ago. The program features an initial 12-week regimen of exercises and instruction specifically tailored to help people living with MS, Parkinson’s, and other neurodegenerative conditions.
Participants are evaluated at the beginning, at six weeks, and at 12 weeks with standardized tests to measure changes in things like balance, mobility and memory.
Barbera established relationships with medical organizations, like University of Colorado School of Medicine, to share the data gathered and examine its merits as a form of treatment.
Participants play twice per week for two hours at Council Tree Covenant Church. A group composed mainly of people with Parkinson’s plays at 9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a group of people living with MS plays at 11 a.m. Tuesdays and 9 a.m. Fridays. About 30 people come regularly in Fort Collins, and another 14 participate in Boulder, where the services are also offered.
Barbera believes that by learning new table tennis skills and doing exercises specifically designed to challenge the brain, participants can improve their lives and conditions.
“How can we stimulate our brain in a playful, joyful way that actually would be beneficial for my motor skills, for my emotions, for my social interactions? And so we really think pingpong combines all those benefits,” Barbera said. “Me being a physician, I really want to bring the science behind the benefits of this sport. So it’s not just pure entertainment. That is, indeed, important as well, but it’s … to eventually reduce the decline that most times is associated with age.”
Those who come are in agreement – that pingpong is a new challenge that seems to help.
Joseph Flanigan was diagnosed with MS in 1989 and finds the therapy accessible and effective.
“Just to be able to hit the ball? The eye-hand coordination is incredibly complicated. If you have neurological networks that are compromised, to do that, trying to retrain those takes work. And that’s why, you know, I’m sitting here and I hit that dang ball back and forth 20 times last time, and I would say, ‘Holy mackerel, how’d that happen?’”
Beyond the physical aspect, a feeling of camaraderie permeates the sessions. People with neurodegenerative diseases, especially those with visible symptoms, can sometimes feel isolated or like their conditions are stigmatized. At table tennis, nobody sticks out.
“Everybody is welcoming and positive, it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, what kind of a day you’re having. You’ve got a support crew,” said Laurie Borthwick, a pingpong player and retired nurse living with Parkinson’s. “Everybody can kind of sense what’s going on with everybody else and help each other out.”
At noon on Sunday, April 23, the group will host a party with speakers, music and pingpong to celebrate World Table Tennis Day at the Boys and Girls Club of Larimer County.
More information can be found on the group’s Facebook page, and all are welcome to attend. To learn more about the nonprofit or inquire about getting involved, visit https://tabletennisconnections.org/.