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“What would you do if you knew that tomorrow you would no longer be healthy?”

By PAULA ALVES

It was a hot summer day in Georgia. I had moved there from the Midwest less than four weeks earlier and didn't know anyone except for the people I had met at work. I was super happy with my new job with a great company. I had recently turned twenty-seven.

I remember that day I got out of bed and felt a bit weak, physically. It was almost like my legs were super heavy, but everything else was normal. I thought I'd see how I felt through the day and maybe visit a doctor if the weakness persisted. Deep inside, I was sure it was something temporary.

I drove to the office and went to a staff meeting we had first thing on Wednesdays. I was scheduled to tour one of the company's laboratories right after the meeting, as part of my introduction to the facilities and the people.

As I sat in the meeting, I felt my left leg and foot tingling. That was definitely unusual, so I decided I'd consult a doctor after the lab tour. I headed to the laboratory and was greeted by the supervisor. He started to show me around, introduce people, and answer my questions. The tingling was becoming more intense, and it got more and more difficult to walk. I started to move like I was drunk. I was embarrassed because my colleagues didn't know me and might think that was actually the case. 

Finally, I could no longer stand up on my own and collapsed on the floor.

They didn't know what to do. They may have actually thought I was drunk. Two men moved me to my car and one of them drove me to my office. When we got there, I couldn't get out of the car, so I asked another colleague to drive me to the emergency room.

At that point, the entire left side of my body was numb, not just my leg or arm but even my face. The doctor immediately suspected a stroke, and I was admitted to the hospital. They ran all sorts of tests and just could not figure out what was going on.

The next morning I woke up in the hospital in the same clothes I had gone to work in the day before. I asked the nurse if the doctor could share with me what he knew so far. She promised to ask him to come over.

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Most of the day passed, and I hadn't heard from the doctor yet. My limbs were not tingling as much anymore, and I was able to stand up for about ten minutes to take a shower. Colleagues from work came over to visit. I'd stare at the window with the sun shining outside and hold on to the thought that even though something was clearly wrong, there would be some treatment to take care of it. Maybe they were still not sure what was going on with me, so that's why the doctor hadn't come in yet.

Finally, a more senior nurse came into the room. She said the doctor was about to see me. She asked if it'd be okay for a group of nurses in training to come along. I said yes, now certain that he was bringing bad news.

My mind stopped at “multiple sclerosis”; it was like I was detached from everything else.

He told me that he was almost 100 percent sure that I had multiple sclerosis. He wanted to do a spinal tap to help confirm his diagnosis. My mind stopped at “multiple sclerosis”; it was like I was detached from everything else. Even the spinal tap felt almost like it didn't happen. I could only think of the one person ever in my life I had met who had MS.

He was a handsome, tall brunette guy. We were at a friend's house by the ocean. He was rather quiet and distant. His friend told me they had known each other since childhood and that she was now a physiotherapist and was helping him recover from multiple sclerosis. She said he used to be a basketball player and that he had been depressed because he could no longer play. I felt sorry for him and frankly thought I'd like to be his girlfriend and help him recover.

Whatever happened, I would not be the face of sadness and depression.

As the doctor and nurses left, I was again staring out the window, alone in the hospital room, trying to make sense of things. I thought I was going to die young, after slowly losing my ability to walk and enjoy life. I didn't know much at all about MS then. I was not sure what was ahead for me, but I made one decision that day: whatever happened, I would not be the face of sadness and depression, I would not be like that handsome guy who could no longer play basketball.

I recovered fast, even though it took me more than a year to be able to walk a reasonable distance, like through a shopping mall, without aid. That was in 2003. Since then, I have been on different therapies, and I've had a couple of other, much milder relapses, the last one in 2008. In the past three years, I have adhered to a healthier lifestyle, with better nutrition and exercise, and I improved to a point I had never imagined. I no longer fall constantly, and one year ago, I completed a fifteen-mile hike.

I still have MS and a mostly imperceptible difficulty moving, but I’ve learned to look at it in a different way. Multiple sclerosis has given me a new perspective on life, one that helps me focus on what is really important during our time on earth. When I'm faced with decisions, I always ask myself: What would you do if you knew that tomorrow you would no longer be healthy? Our health and the people close to us are really everything we have.

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