More MS news articles for Aug 2001

MS mission

Seattle specialist pays back' hometown Anchorage by returning to help Alaska patients

Published: August 28, 2001
By Ann Potempa
Anchorage Daily News

At 24, Becky McGuire wanted to find out what she could expect as a person living with multiple sclerosis.

Alaska doesn't have any doctors who specialize in the neurological disorder, so the Eagle River resident flew to Seattle to visit Dr. Craig Smith. Smith, a neurologist who runs an MS clinic at Swedish Medical Center, was the man to see, people told her.

McGuire watched as Smith drew a picture of what the disease was doing inside her body.

"I started crying afterward," she said. It all made sense now.

"He told me more in one hour than three doctors had told me in three years," McGuire said.

McGuire doesn't have to fly to see Smith anymore. Now he flies to see her.

Since July, Smith has come to Anchorage one day a month to provide a free clinic for Alaska residents with MS. He will be seeing patients in Anchorage on Friday.

Smith had been caring for dozens of Alaskans in his Seattle office, so he felt certain that there must be more people here who weren't getting the care they needed. Vickie Dodge-Pamplin, director of the state's MS clinic, said the state has one of the highest rates of the disease and at least 1,000 residents with MS. Smith said there are more Alaskans who have yet to be diagnosed.

Alaska has the technology to diagnose the disease, but it lacks the doctors who work with MS patients every day. Alaska has only a handful of neurologists; not enough to care for all the neurological problems in the area and meet the needs of MS patients as well. Until now, if Alaska patients wanted specialized care, they had to fly Outside for help.

Smith said his free clinic is one way to improve services to those patients. It's also a way for him to give back to Anchorage, where he grew up years ago.


MS affects more than 300,000 people nationwide, according to reports from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The disease is not contagious and not considered fatal. Women are twice as likely to develop MS. Most diagnoses come between the ages of 20 and 50.

People like McGuire can struggle to get an accurate diagnosis because early symptoms can indicate a number of potential health problems. Symptoms vary, including blurred vision, loss of balance, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, fatigue, paralysis or blindness. Sometimes symptoms come and go; other times they're permanent.

McGuire started with double vision and fatigue. She remembered trying to climb Flattop Mountain with friends.

"I was just sitting there, panting at the bottom saying, You guys go ahead. I'll wait here,' " she said. "We just thought I was really out of shape."

It didn't make sense to a girl who used to play on softball teams.

McGuire's disease was misdiagnosed at first, but later an eye exam and magnetic resonance imaging revealed its true nature. Her symptoms worsened. She slurred her speech when talking to customers at work. She'd tip over if she wasn't leaning against a wall. Then she lost her ability to walk. Today she uses a wheelchair to get around.

Alaska sees many more cases of MS per capita than other places. Smith said some people have a genetic makeup that makes them more susceptible to the disease than others. The theory is that an outside intruder, like a bacteria or virus, triggers this genetic makeup, causing MS, he said.

MS is rare among the Eskimo population and more likely to be seen in people of Northern European descent. The higher the latitude, the higher the incidence of MS, Smith said.

The MS rate for Florida and the southern part of the country is about 10 per 100,000 people. The Seattle and Spokane area has a much higher rate of 100-130 per 100,000 people. Though the lack of a full-time MS specialist makes it hard to nail down, Alaska's rate is probably comparable to Washington's, Smith said. Alaskans typically are of Northern European descent. They come from northern states and live in a northern latitude -- all factors linked to a higher incidence of the disease, said Smith and Dodge-Pamplin.


For at least the next year, Smith will donate his services to Alaska patients and charge them nothing for the visit. He's able to do this through grant money he received from several pharmaceutical companies.

Smith conducts his monthly clinic in the office of Anchorage neurologist Marjorie Smith, who's not related to Craig. Marjorie's office is located on the Alaska Regional Hospital campus. Smith eventually will move the clinic to Providence Alaska Medical Center where he'll have more space. All patients must be referred by a doctor to attend the clinic.

Smith said he'd like to expand the clinic from one to two days every month. He wants to start a rotation of physicians, bringing up other specialists from the Washington area to see patients in Anchorage. In time, he'd also like to be able to increase the number of patients he can see during a visit.

There are still no cures for MS, but new treatments allow Smith to help patients slow down the course of the disease. Drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can lessen the frequency of symptoms or relapses. McGuire said she hopes her treatment will eventually allow her to get rid of the wheelchair and run her family's business some day.

The free clinic gives patients like McGuire more options -- like making clinical trials available to Alaskans who want more help. Just months after the clinic began, patients from Anchorage to Fairbanks to the Kenai Peninsula are calling Dodge-Pamplin to find out more. She's already scheduling appointments for Smith's November visit.

"We hope to one day have a permanent clinic," she said. "And it's looking like we're going to need one."

For more information about the clinic, call Dodge-Pamplin at 929-2567 or 1-877-929-2567. The clinic will have a Web site soon at

Reporter Ann Potempa can be reached at or 907-257-4581.

Copyright © 2001 The Anchorage Daily News