By Gina Shaw
October 17, 2019
Article In Brief
A neurologist who heads up an epilepsy center finds peace and a sense of well-being in pursuing multiple martial arts, for which she has black belts, and dancing tango.
Meriem K. Bensalem-Owen, MD, FACNS, FAES, FANA, professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky, has directed the epilepsy program there since 2010. And for nearly the same amount of time, she has been passionate about martial arts as a practitioner of Tae Kwon Do, Krav Maga, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
She first got involved because she wanted to do a shared activity with her then 5-year-old son, but then something kicked in, literally. Today, she has multiple degree black belts in the martial arts. And she finds the time to study and perform Argentine tango.
Dr. Bensalem-Owen said she felt an immediate sense of well-being when she stepped into her first class. She spoke to Neurology Today about her involvement in the martial arts and tango t—and how it all contributes to her overall sense of wellness. Her remarks, condensed and edited for clarity and space, appear below.
How did you first get involved with martial arts?
It was originally because of my son. As a single mother and as a full-time working physician, there was a lot of guilt. When my son was younger, he was very shy and suffered from social anxiety, and that produced even more guilt. I wanted to help him, spend as much time with him as I could, and to expose him to social events. So I decided that I would do an activity with him when I was done with work. I thought martial arts would help with his shyness and his social anxiety and build his confidence around people. He was young when he started, around 5, and refused to do it by himself, so I had to find a gym that would train families. Even if we might be in separate groups or classes some of the time, we would still mostly be together. I could have taken him someplace where he would do a class and I would just watch, but the danger in that is becoming one of those parents who just sits there on their cell phones. After a failed first trial, we found a very welcoming dojo (gym), owned by a South Korean family.
What made Tae Kwon Do so appealing to you?
When we did the first lesson, as soon as I started listening to the instructions and trying to do what we were asked to do, I felt a sense of well-being, a purging of everything I was holding on to from work—the sad stories, the complicated stories, the worries. It was like a cleansing of my mind and I felt it very beneficial. I was actually having my mindfulness moments while practicing the various forms of teaching of Tae Kwan Do, [known as] poomsae.
Around the time I took over the epilepsy program, I was on call for six months straight without a day off and having this “blocked” time for practice with my son was very beneficial to both of us. When I left work, I was with my son, and I mean fully with him. We were getting ready together for practice after a dinner on the go.
So we continued to train together for several years. We participated in competitions together for six straight years. We tested for our various belts together, including for the black belt. Then we began working toward our second-degree dan [a grade of] black belt, which I ended up doing by myself because by then, my son was about 11 and his interest had moved more toward other activities. This was fine with me as Tae Kwon Do had served its purpose for him; he was more confident and had less social anxiety.
When did you move away from Tae Kwon Do?
By the time I was a second-degree black belt, our Grandmaster assigned me a weekly class to teach, which I managed to do despite my clinical workload. As I was preparing for my third dan black belt, I incurred a shoulder and then a knee injury, unrelated to martial arts. Despite the pain, I participated in an international competition in which I had previously taken first place in my categories, and this time I took second place for breaking techniques and second for forms. I felt like I wasn't performing at my best, and I was limited with the pain, so I decided to take some time off to get my strength back. My son and I started taking, at his insistence, weekly classes with a personal trainer at the gym, which we continue to do to this day. This ultimately helped me rehab my shoulder and my leg. Around the same time, we started practicing Krav Maga, which is a self-defense system.
I continued Krav Maga for a couple of years and I was eventually introduced to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which I'm doing now. It holds a special place in my heart; I find it physically and mentally challenging. It is very technical. Grappling is like playing a game of chess or trying to solve a puzzle, while things are constantly evolving, and time and timing are of the essence. At my current gym, the instructors are so wonderful and inspiring. They are high-level practitioners who despite their excellence demonstrate humility. I think I'm going to have a long journey with this martial art. Additionally, I train with my significant other, who is more advanced and has been very supportive. Actually, he even started taking tango lessons for me!
What led you to also begin pursuing dance?
That happened a little over a year and a half ago because of a loss in my family. My brother's girlfriend died of leukemia at the age of 37. She had a leukemic crisis and was given a few days to live. She ended up living several weeks, but I kept thinking, what would I do if I were 37 and told I had just a few days to live? I came across a studio that was giving free dance lessons, and I thought I would try it, to honor her and to recognize that we take things for granted and don't understand that life happens all of a sudden. We get so busy with work and other things that we don't realize we're not here indefinitely.
Had you done any dancing previously?
I had taken ballet lessons when I was young and I must admit that I did not appreciate that then. During my neurology residency I had taken some ballroom dancing classes. I was always fascinated with Argentine tango, so that's what I focus on now, even though my dance instructor, who is wise beyond his age, encourages me to practice other dances. Last year, we had a local showcase, and my instructor and I won the award for the most original routine. Ours was an Argentine tango routine so that was very exciting!
How do you think all this benefits you as a neurologist?
Working full time as a physician takes so much out of you. Martial arts and the dancing keep me grounded and sets scheduling boundaries. When my son was younger, I started martial arts for him, but now that he's older and spending a lot of time with his friends and doing what he likes—he's not shy anymore!—I do it mainly for me. I feel like mentally it helps me empty my mind. I think I'm an empath, I bring people's emotions home with me, and this helps me cope with that. I feel like I can be a better doctor.
Does it help you avoid burnout?
You know, I had several points in my life when I might have gotten burned out, like being on call for six straight months with a young child, and I wonder why I didn't. It may have something to do with the way my parents raised my brothers and me, and also where I did my medical training.
After spending my teenage years in Italy, I went to medical school in Algeria in the nineties during the civil war. There were curfews and military checkpoints stopping you. One day, while I was training in orthopedics, we were doing plasters, and there was a terrorist who was a patient in the hospital.
A terrorist group came into the hospital shooting at everyone to take him away. You could hear the shooting getting closer but you did not really know where it was coming from, everybody was screaming, and there was chaos. You didn't know when the door would open and you'd be facing the person shooting. It was very frightening. That's why it breaks my heart when I hear about all these school and mass shootings. It brings tears to my eyes even now to think about it. Am I resilient because of that? Perhaps.
I think doctors are resilient, but at the end of the day we're just humans. We make personal and family sacrifices, and some of us are chronically sleep deprived. We want to help everyone, but we can't always save everyone. So you have to do something for yourself, to clear your mind of your sad stories, your complex patients, your failures. My Tae Kwon Do Grandmaster asked me one day, “What is the most important thing in your life, Doctor Meriem?” I said, of course, “My son.” He said, “That's the wrong answer. It should be you. Because if you're not well, physically and mentally, if you don't take care of yourself, how can you take care of your family and the people who rely on you?”