Monday, April 10, 2000
By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Val Liadis has walked farther, but no steps came harder than the ones she took when she reached the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers on Liberty Avenue, near the end of yesterday's MS Walk through Pittsburgh
Wearing braces on both legs, bearing crutches and flashing a brave, bright smile much warmer than the early April sunshine, Liadis climbed out of the motorized wheelchair that she had used along the five-mile route from Station Square on the South Side and joined the procession of 3,000 others to walk the last block to the finish line in Point State Park.
"It was a rough ride, not just because this was not a wheelchair-accessible route but because I wanted to walk, like I've done every year," said the 22-year-old Duquesne University senior who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993. "It was a goal I had, to walk across the finish line again, and I did it."
The Baldwin Borough resident has participated in the annual walk sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society every year since she was diagnosed with the chronic, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that affects more than a half-million Americans and many more around the world.
In 1994, Liadis, a special education/elementary education major, hiked 14 miles before she collapsed at the finish line and was taken to Mercy Hospital. After that she reduced her mileage. This is the first year she had to use a wheelchair.
At least a dozen other walk participants also rolled the route, surrounded by family and friends, some wearing special T-shirts noting their kinship or common bond.
Most of the participants stuck an oval sticker distributed by walk organizers on the back of their shirts or jackets. The sticker bore an image of an athletic shoe and the message: "I'm walking for ... ." The spaces were filled in with hand-lettered names of friends, "my sister" or sometimes "mom."
In addition to Pittsburgh participants, Anne Mageras, MS Pittsburgh chapter programs director, said another 2,000 were expected to participate in state MS Walks to raise awareness and money for research yesterday in Meadville, Crawford County; Greensburg; Indiana; Johnstown; Altoona; and Du Bois, Clearfield County.
Liadis was joined by a support team of 40 classmates, professors and family members, wearing "Val's Pals" T-shirts.
James Henderson, dean of Duquesne's School of Education and one of those Val's Pals on the walk, said Liadis has been tenacious in her effort to get a degree despite physical setbacks, and that has inspired her classmates at the school.
"The students in the five organizations at the School of Education put together this support group for the walk and it's neat to see," he said. "Val is a great example for people who have debilitating illnesses. Val is the most challenged student we have and also the most inspiring."
Among family members on the walk were Liadis' mother and father, Catherine and Thomas, twin brothers Tom and Nick, and uncle Lou. Her mother and brother Tom also have been diagnosed with MS and, though both have had rough times, their symptoms remained invisible to anyone walking with them yesterday.
"We just keep going as long and as well as we can," Liadis' mother said, "even though we know that eventually it will hurt us."
Lately the disease has been almost as aggressive with Val Liadis as she has been with her activities. In October, she caught pneumonia and was hospitalized for 15 weeks. Her latest hospital stay ended early last month.
"She's had a lot of setbacks, but she always fights through them. A lot of people would have quit," said Lou Liadis, her uncle. "A couple of doctors told her if she keeps up the pace she has been things will get worse, but she won't slow down."
A former athlete in track, basketball, softball and volleyball, Liadis still attends classes regularly and participates in several campus organizations. She writes poetry to keep herself motivated and to try to make some sense of what the disease has done to her. Last year she attended the International Poetry Society Conference in Washington, DC.
"I've been told if I don't slow down I'll be dead in five years. When the doctor told me that I cried, but then I got angry," she said. "I cut some things, but I'm still in groups, still in class. I don't like people putting time limits on me."
Most people with multiple sclerosis are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, with symptoms ranging from the mild, such as numbness in limbs, to severe, such as paralysis, loss of vision and memory. The progress, severity and symptoms of MS cannot yet be predicted, but advances in research and treatment have improved life expectancy.
After years of disdaining the wheelchair, Liadis is using it to get around campus, but she tries to walk as much as possible in her dorm. She's also trying to raise the $12,000 needed to buy a specially trained "Paws for the Cause" service dog.
"A service dog would be able to pick up things if I drop them and close doors and do other things to help me be independent," she said. "Right now I'm not independent. A dog would help."
After crossing the finish line, Liadis was surrounded by a tight knot of people. By the time they pulled away, a half-dozen of the medals distributed to participants at the finish line were hanging by their red, white and blue ribbons around her neck.
"Some people have said I'm an inspiration to them, but I see myself
as just like anyone else," Liadis said. "I just do what I need to do. It's
like I wrote in one of my poems -- 'I used to rock. Now I just roll.' "