MS Awareness and Ivanhoe’s shakes

ms awareness weekI composed the following article for our small local paper, and it’s an updated version of my 2011 piece. I think this milkshake analogy is my favorite way to explain how MS doesn’t always look the same. 



MS Awareness Week, March 5-11

           As spring nears, March again brings “MS Awareness Week.”   I find this interesting, as I experience 52 of these each year, but is nice that a bit of time is set aside to share information with others.  Over 400,000 individuals in the United States face this challenge, so this week offers the chance to shine a light on information that may be new… or misunderstood.

As our friend “G. I. Joe” used to say at the end of each cartoon in the 80s, “Knowing is half the battle.”  Knowing what MS is – and what it isn’t – is helpful in gaining an understanding of this illness.  So what is multiple sclerosis?  It is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that the otherwise helpful immune system is affecting something it shouldn’t.  In this case, the white blood cells are attacking several (multiple) places on the coating of the nerves.  These attacks create scars (sclerosis).  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Not so fast.  Consider the nerves that run through the body, not to mention the large bundle of nerve tissue that we call the brain.  In fact, using MRI technology, scars viewed in the brain often lead to a diagnosis of MS.

ivanhoe shakes            If it is anything, MS is unpredictable.  Scientists are still uncertain as to the initial cause of this disease, there is not a certain pattern that it always follows, and it can vary widely from one individual to another.  The best area analogy I have found is the menu of Upland’s Ivanhoe’s restaurant.  Hoe’s is largely known for its 100 varieties of shakes and sundaes, and MS can vary just as much, if not more.  Some are diagnosed and may have a “vanilla acapella,” with no additional or noticeable symptoms after the initial onset.  Others, though, experience a shake not even on the menu, with ingredients they never liked to start with.  Symptoms can include fatigue, loss of coordination, heat sensitivity, slurred speech, cognitive problems… and I’ll stop there, as this is a bit disheartening.

Besides knowing what MS is, it is equally important that we realize what it isn’t.  MS is not a death sentence: though chronic, it is not fatal.  MS is also not the sign that somebody has lost his or her ability to be productive.  Every individual, like those beloved gourmet shakes, is different.  The last two homes where we lived had us next door to an individual with MS, something I certainly didn’t realize at first.  You see, MS is not obvious.  Two thirds of those diagnosed with multiple sclerosis are female, but this means that many are also male.  MS is also not age-specific.  A few are diagnosed as young as six, some in their 50s or 60s, but many in their 20s or 30s.  Many are from Western European ancestry, but this also varies.  And about a fourth of those with MS end in a wheelchair, but three fourths do not.

So why should we be aware?  More and more medical breakthroughs are on the horizon.  There are currently fourteen medications on the market to help slow MS progression, and a cure is closer each day.  In the meantime, patience and understanding are key in helping support our friends and neighbors with MS.  Now you know, and though simply knowing may not be half the battle, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Angie Knight was diagnosed with MS in 1997 and lives with her husband and daughters in Upland. Visit her “Invisible Issues” blog at https://angieknight.wordpress.com .

So what exactly does MS look like?

Angie MRI 2006

This is actually a slide from my lovely MRI brain photo shoot in spring 2006. Brighter spots are the new active scars. 

…This is like asking what a March day in Indiana looks like. The answers will change from day to day, sometimes minute to minute. One MS descriptor I appreciate is “unpredictable” – scars in the brain can do funny things, and misfiring nerves can be quite disconcerting. I appreciate the image of this posted by MS Lifelines. Ten common symptoms were highlighted here, and I’ll focus on the few that affect me most (I understand these most clearly).

 

  • Cognitive issues: Words sometimes fail me, and I will forget things… it’s hard to tell what is MS and what isn’t, but these issues are frustrating. My thoughts also seem to process more slowly. (This definitely affects the games I choose to play!)
  • Vision: my  eyesight is already poor, but MS scars on the optic nerves sometimes keep my eyes from cooperating. My left eye likes to wander, ignoring messages from the right. In fact, my first symptom in April and May of 1997 was “optic neuritis,” and scarring on the optic nerve led to uncomfortable eye issues that stopped before I knew where they had come from.
  • Fatigue: This isn’t just a case of “I think I’m a bit tired,” but true weariness that strikes. A nap can help, but the need for a mid-day nap can be frustrating, I must admit. The analogy I often use is that of a battery. Most folks start the day with two fully-charged D batteries (8-year-olds may have three), while I have a single AA or AAA size. And on some days, I’m convinced that many have Duracell, while I have the off-brand battery that had been forgotten at the bottom of the drawer.
  • Strength and coordination: This is why people with MS are sometimes mistaken as inebriated. Walking in a straight line is more difficult than one may think! Personally, when my feet and legs stopped moving where my mind was telling them to, I agreed wholeheartedly that I was not going to drive. (Hand controls would not be a good option for me either, as my hands become flakey when my feet also stop cooperating. Not helpful.) I also used to play piano… no, I haven’t “given up,” but accepting the fact that my hands will not move in a detailed, coordinated, practiced method is a truth that I face.

If you care to watch a short video answering the MS questions, the MS Society has a nice one here:

March is MS Awareness and Education Month, but this week is specifically MS Awareness Week.On Friday, I’ll post here the op-ed piece I submitted to our local paper, the SEGway news (for South Eastern Grant County). It is a little more lighthearted than this MS laundry list of sorts. Did you know that MS is like an Ivanhoe’s shake? Visit back in a few days to see how.