Kindred Spirits

Dr. Marla Murphy and Tonya Horton know a thing or two about meeting challenges head-on. The two are successful business owners and directors in the medical field for both Saline County and Arkansas.

Horton, 39, manages her team at Horton Orthotics and Prosthetics in Bryant while also serving as Marketing Director for the family-owned business’ four other statewide locations. “I wear many hats,” she laughs. “Sometimes when people ask what I do, I tell them my title is ‘IDK’ or ‘I don’t know.’”

Dr. Murphy, 42, owns Exceptional Physical Therapy in Benton. In addition to outpatient physical therapy, Dr. Murphy specializes in Multiple Sclerosis, breast cancer rehabilitation and lymphedema, a chronic swelling in the tissues that typically impacts the patient’s arms. “I’m one of few in the state who are certified in (lymphedema),” she said.

She was recently named the Arkansas Rehabilitation Services Rehabilitant of the Year for her efforts in her medical fields.

These two women are both deeply committed to their families, communities and charitable endeavors. They’re also best friends who share a unique bond that changed each of their lives more than a decade ago. Both were diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in their 20s.

“We’ve been friends less than a year, but it’s like when you meet someone, and you know you’re just meant to be friends,” said Dr. Murphy.

MS is a disease that impacts a patient’s brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. It can affect basic body functions, including balance, vision and mobility. The results, while different from patient-to-patient, can be intense fatigue, numbness, difficulty walking and vision problems.

Dr. Murphy was diagnosed in 1998, but her first symptom appeared four years earlier. “We were living in California,” she recalled. “I was working in physical therapy and couldn’t see out of one eye. I thought I needed glasses.”

Dr. Murphy’s physicians told her she exhibited signs of MS, but they wouldn’t officially diagnose her “because my husband was about to get out of the Navy. I would not have gotten health insurance because that was a pre-existing condition.”

That all changed for Dr. Murphy four years later. “My second diagnosis came and 1998 while working at Baptist (Medical Center),” she said. “I went to a doctor to find out why my fingers were tingling and why I was having trouble when it’s hot. These are common symptoms of someone with MS.”

Instead of letting her diagnosis hold her back, Dr. Murphy turned the tables, choosing to continue with her goals and motivations. “I’ve always made a plan and followed through,” she said.

Dr. Murphy enrolled at UCA at the age of 30, studying physical therapy. Ever determined, she earned her doctorate in 2009 but admits she’s had to adapt while managing her diagnosis. “I’m very much a Type-A personality, but I’ve had to learn to be an A- or B+,” she said. “Fatigue is also a major battle with MS, so I try to relax more.”

Tonya Horton was diagnosed with MS at 29-years-old. Her first symptoms, she says, appeared while with her family on her 28th birthday. “We were at the casinos in Tunica,” she said. “As you know, they can be smoky. My eye was watering, and my dad kept asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”

The watering and irritation didn’t stop. At the behest of her father, Horton agreed to see her family doctor the next day. What followed was a yearlong panel of doctor/specialist visits and tests that took their toll on Horton and her family.

“My mind immediately went to Annette Funicello,” she said. “I got depressed and down in the dumps. All I’d ever seen were the more serious cases.

“In our business, we work with MS patients, and many of them couldn’t walk,” she added. “I thought this was my future.” The depression eventually waned for Horton. “I realized I have all of this stuff I want to do. I’ve got to get it done,” she said.

Already involved in her family’s business, Horton chose to set her sites on charitable work. “Throughout my life, I’ve always been involved with charitable organizations,” she said. “I’ve worked the past four years with Junior Auxiliary of Saline County, helping children in the county. I’ve always loved working with people and giving my time.”

Her charitable spirit and work ethic earned Horton the 2014 Chamber of Commerce Woman of the Year Award. It also inspired her to begin working with the Arkansas Chapter of the MS Society. “It’s a disease that affects me and will affect the rest of my life,” she said.

Working with the MS Society has proven fulfilling for Murphy and Horton in many ways. Marla currently serves on the Leadership Council for the Arkansas chapter of the MS Society, was co-chair of last year’s “Orange You Lovely” fashion show where Tonya was on the committee and they are both co-chairs for media on this year’s Central Arkansas MS Walk, set for April 11 in Little Rock’s River Market. According to their Web site, the MS Society has set a goal of raising $120,000, a number the group’s members expect to exceed.

More importantly, their involvement in with the Society introduced them to each other. It’s proven to be a connection both women have grown to cherish in a short period of time.

“The friendship we have formed since meeting has been amazing,” Dr. Murphy said. “Tonya is such an incredible woman, and we’ve grown not only as friends but also as partners in helping others.”

That partnership extends beyond their connection with MS and the treatment of others battling the disease. With the recent retirement of Barbara Graves after 40 years of serving Arkansas, Dr. Murphy and Horton have begun collaborative treatment for women battling breast cancer. Horton specializes in breast prosthetics following a mastectomy, while Dr. Murphy works with patients in breast cancer rehabilitation.

“It’s amazing to see Saline County has two awesome women who are dedicated to helping people through MS, breast cancer treatment and through business,” Dr. Murphy said.

“Marla and I are so much alike,” Horton said. “It’s nice to have someone with similar challenges and ambitions toward helping others that truly understands me.”