Living with MS

FOUR years ago, what was supposed to be a typical day at the gym for Kai Clarke turned out to be anything but that.

“I was lifting a dumb-bell with both hands, then only one hand could lift it and the other hand couldn’t, as it kept slipping. Then when I started stretching and I sat down, I just had this extreme pain on the left side of my body, and my trainer had to send me home,” the 21-year-old told the Jamaica Observer.

Little did The University of the West Indies, Mona engineering student know that she was experiencing symptoms of multiple sclerosis, for which she was later diagnosed.

Multiple sclerosis (MS), according to non-profit academic medical centre Mayo Clinic, is a potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord in which the immune system attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibres and causes communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body.

Neurologist and medical director of Caribbean Neurology Pain and Headache Center, Dr Michele Lee Lambert explained to Your Health Your Wealth that some of the symptoms of MS include loss of vision, double vision; numbness or weakness in the face, arms or legs; difficulty walking, loss of balance, poor coordination; and slurred speech.

“Many patients also have fatigue or difficulty thinking properly – that would be the cognitive changes. There is also depression, tremor and heat intolerance,” Dr Lee Lambert said, adding that symptomatic episodes occur months or years apart and affect different anatomic locations.

She said, too, that young people — “people in their twenties and thirties, in the prime of their life” — are most likely to suffer from the condition.

“However, very young children and older people can [also] be affected by this disease. Average age of diagnosis for women is 29 and men 31,” said Dr Lee Lambert.

Clarke told Your Health Your Wealth that these days, she experiences relapsing-remitting MS, which Dr Lee Lambert describes as a neurological deficit that will last for days or months before symptoms improve.

“MS has impacted my life greatly. For instance, I have memory problems. So, for example…in exams, I just could not think normally so I needed extra time, and even with extra time I needed someone sometimes to write for me. One specific instance when I was doing an exam, I kind of spazzed out and I full on just stopped being able to write and speak or think, and I was just incomprehensible.

“Another instance is, I am a very athletic person and I realised that I could not carry my bag from class A to class B because if I did, I would have to take so many breaks – and my classes are not far apart. I just needed the breaks because I was just having problems moving, and it was just a lot more energy,” Clarke recounted.

She said since her diagnosis with MS, which is being commemorated today, World MS Day, she has become more appreciative of the people around her and strives to be empathetic, courteous, adventurous, and patient.

“I moved very fast through life previously. I can definitely say that I have slowed down and begun to appreciate the simple things more. For example, getting out of my bed and being able to stand, walk down the stairs, drive, or even see my legs,” she said.

Clarke is writing an anthology titled Undamaged which she hopes will help create more awareness about MS and encourage others living with the condition to remain positive.

“Take the little victories! If you can see today but could not yesterday, smile! Also, even though your arms and legs might not be working, just be happy, as there are so many things trying to stop that,” she said.

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