Healthy Life

Local Survivors Find Strength in the Face of Adversity

Discover the remarkable stories of survivors in SWFL who refused to be defined by their challenges, finding strength and purpose through fitness, nutrition and unwavering determination.

BY June 28, 2024
Photo By Brian Tietz

Alyssa Nemes

A former bodybuilder’s journey to peace and self-love

By Reine Dugas

People have praised Alyssa Nemes’ athletic ability all her life. From toddler team soccer to middle and high school cheerleading to her invitation into the world of bodybuilding, physical excellence defined her identity. At 19, the now-owner of Naples’ Higher Self & Sound found immediate success and renown as a bodybuilding figure competitor, but in time, the cliquey, appearance-based culture started wearing on the young athlete. “I was young, and my body wasn’t mature enough. I couldn’t reduce my body fat enough,” she says.

Her days began at 4 a.m. with an hour of cardio on an empty stomach and ended with lengthy gym sessions. She worked in a sub shop and a bakery surrounded by treats she would not—could not—touch, and brought her own meals to parties. “It definitely created a form of body dysmorphia that I have struggled with since,” she says. Through her self-love healing journey, Alyssa has come to feel at home in her body, but back then, she never felt good enough. “I didn’t look like myself anymore,” she says. “I didn’t feel like me.”

At 21, Alyssa left bodybuilding and took two months off from exercise. Then, the a local CrossFit gym owner invited her to come by. The no-pain-no-gain environment fulfilled her competitive drive while encouraging a food-as-fuel mindset. New challenges surfaced. Her heart started racing uncontrollably during exercise. She flashed back to a high school flag football game when she suffered a similar attack. “Why does it look like there’s a machine gun in my heart?” she remembered asking herself.

The once infrequent episodes became regular. She couldn’t control the symptoms—or the related fear. A year later, she was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia (an arrhythmia) and underwent an ablation procedure that zapped her heart’s misfiring tissue. A week of excruciating, nearly motionless recovery followed. Months later, she moved to Naples and found a new way forward.
Yoga provided a more introspective path to wellness. Coupled with sound work (gentle, vibrating frequencies that facilitate mediation), the practice helped Alyssa process hard-to-face physical and emotional pain.

“Surrendering the need to control an outcome—that to me is true growth,” she says.

As she found harmony within herself, Alyssa felt called to guide others; within nine years, she became a certified yoga instructor, sound practitioner and reiki master. Today, she leads group and one-on-one sessions at her studio. Sometimes, there are tears at the end of a class. Working through pain can be overwhelming, but hope now fills the scarred areas. “I feel joy and happiness and contentment,” she says.

Photo By Brian Tietz



Cherline Louissaint

A runner’s path to breathing freely

By Misty Milioto

When Cherline Louissaint crossed the finish line of the City of Palms’ half marathon in 2022, it wasn’t just an athletic achievement. It was a childhood dream fulfilled. The owner of Fort Myers’ Increase the Peach Health & Fitness Studio, known as Coach Chè, flashed back to her younger self, the girl who raced the neighborhood boys and idolized track-and-field star Florence Griffith Joyner.
Her lifelong breathing issues reached a fever pitch at 8 when she tried out for the track team. “That’s when my little lungs decided to stage a rebellion, putting an end to my Olympic dreams in one swift blow,” she says. A doctor diagnosed Chè with severe asthma.

In 2006, as a Florida International University freshman, she went all in on yoga. The practice’s focused breathing techniques reminded her of the kung fu films she loved as a child. “From there, I began to understand my triggers and experimented with different breath patterns for various activities,” she says.

Chè mastered diaphragmatic breathing to increase lung capacity, Ujjayi breath for enhanced focus and relaxation and the pursed-lip technique, which helps ease anxiety.
As Chè got control of her life, she started weight training, and 13 years after her first asthma attack, she started running again. By learning to control the symptoms, Chè has managed to avoid using a rescue inhaler for 13 years. “I learned my limits and how to push past them,” the trainer adds.

Chè incorporates breathwork at her boutique fitness studio, Increase the Peach Health, where she leads classes that blend mobility, stretching and lifting—all executed with controlled breathing to maximize impact and sustain endurance. The 5-foot-3 muscular trainer is now the picture of health, running regularly, teaching classes weekly and leading energized groups at FitMix Fest—an annual nonprofit festival she launched in 2022 to foster conversations about and provide resources for holistic wellness in Fort Myers.

But, mere months after her milestone half-marathon, Chè had a setback—she was diagnosed with COVID-19. Her symptoms were minor, but the lingering effects derailed her. “I went from running 45 to 50 miles per month to just 5 to 7 miles per month,” she says.

Undeterred, Chè shifted from cardio to strength training, meditation and underwater breathwork—alternating patterns as she holds her breath in a saltwater pool—to restrengthen her airways. Two years after her COVID-19 diagnosis, Chè is running further, faster and longer every day. “Over time, I stopped thinking about limits and focused on what I could achieve,” she says. “Now, I get to help others do the same.” 


Photo By Brian Tietz


Jordan Dunin

An entrepreneur’s quest for health and happiness

By Fritz Esker

When Jordan Dunin dove into Ontario’s Lake Muskoka in 2016, he knew something was very wrong. Despite profuse bleeding and a dull, persistent pain from hitting his head on the bottom of the lake, he managed to get to his boat and call for help. He received 15 staples in his skull.

Jordan had spinal damage and brain swelling, leaving him in a cervical collar for four years. “I was told I would probably be handicapped for the rest of my life,” he recalls. Years later, the founder of Naples’ HatchPath, an online wellcoach-coach finder, sees his experience as a blessing. Back then, he felt hopeless.
The dean’s list college student had to pause his business studies, and was taking six to eight Advil a day. He couldn’t ride in a car, read, focus or watch TV. Meanwhile, he felt overwhelming guilt for choosing to dive into the lake. “I felt like I had let my family down, myself down,” Jordan says.

A year later, Jordan was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which caused extreme brain fog, fatigue and pain. By this time he had lost 60 pounds and was in unbearable pain. “I was at rock bottom,” he says.

By 21, he had gone through a round of antidepressants that made him feel suicidal, had multiple surgeries to treat infections, was on a steady diet of antibiotics that wreaked havoc on his gut, and he’d tore his hip labrum. A year had passed since his accident, and he wasn’t getting better.

Then, Jordan’s now-wife, Lauren, a holistic nutritionist, introduced him to meditation and clean eating. The effects were transformative. “I could breathe better and just felt more mentally clear,” he says. Jordan started working with a health coach who helped him realize he needed to release his guilt to truly heal. He also worked with Bec Symonds—a mindset coach and hypnotherapist, who is now part of HatchPath’s hive of approved coaches.

Meanwhile, Jordan sought out complementary, alternative treatments. He tried electromagnetic therapy with the Rife machine—a device believed (but not proven) to treat certain conditions—and platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections—said to trigger cell production and tissue regeneration. Often, he’d feel worse during treatments, but after eight months, he felt symptom-free.

Jordan went on to earn a degree in commerce, spent a year as a Lyme disease health coach, and debuted HatchPath. “I wanted clients who were struggling to have a trusted person on the other side who isn’t a scam artist,” he says. He’s also training for his first Ironman race this month—a major milestone in his journey.
Eight years ago, Jordan returned to Lake Muskoka for a Canada Day party, where he met his wife. Jordan credits her most his recovery. “Where I was hurt, I was healed,” he says.


Photo By Brian Tietz


Michelle Konkoly

A swimmer’s road to limitless strength

By Fritz Esker

Michelle Konkoly vividly remembers the night of January 11, 2011. The elite Division 1 (D1) swimmer had just entered her second semester at Georgetown University. There, in her stuffy fifth-floor dorm room, she found herself lost in dreams, imagining her name on the collegiate pool’s record board. As the atmosphere in the room shifted from muggy to stifling, Michelle climbed onto her desk to open a window—something she and her roommate had done countless times. Then, her memory cuts.

At the emergency room, the doctors filled in the blanks—she’d slipped on her desk and fallen out the open window, fracturing her vertebrae and damaging her spinal cord. The college freshman was paralyzed from the waist down. But, Michelle clung to a sliver of hope—she could wiggle one toe.

Intense rehab and multiple surgeries filled the months that followed, including a spinal fusion of most of her lumbar region. After months of acute care, in-patient rehab and outpatient therapies that ran five days a week for six weeks, Michelle could walk again—but her left leg would never be as strong as her right.

When the swimmer returned to practice, she realized she couldn’t keep up with her D1 teammates anymore. Frustrated by her limitations, Michelle was looking for a new way to compete when she heard about the Paralympic Games. “We literally Googled ‘swimming for people with disabilities,’” she recalls.

A year and a half after her injury, Michelle qualified for the 2012 Paralympic Trial, breaking a world record in the 50-meter freestyle race. She didn’t make the team but doubled down on training. Michelle deferred medical school to train at Community School of Naples’ long course pool, linking up with T2 Aquatics’ Paul Yetter and Derek Touchette, owner Naples’ Total Athletic Performance.

Michelle worked with Paul daily and with Derek three to four days per week for 18 months. By 2016, Michelle qualified for the Rio Paralympics and won two gold medals, one for a world record-breaking time in the 100-meter freestyle race. “Derek was instrumental in building my strength and agility,” she says.
The 32-year-old is no longer competing as she works through her fourth year of residency at multiple hospitals, including Nemours Children’s Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware. But she stays active using a spin bike, weight training at the gym and swimming at public pools.

After the 2012 Paralympic trials, Michelle got a tattoo to remind herself of how she’d endured. Scrawled above a scar on her side, the etching recalls the slogan of Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, where she pushed through her early recovery—a single word, “Believe.” 

Courtesy Elite Sportswear

Related Images: