More MS news articles for Aug 2001

The joy of rapid recovery

(Published Aug. 8, 2001)
By Matthew Barrows
Bee Staff Writer

Julianne Vertnik's multiple sclerosis makes it nearly impossible to get out of bed some days. She tires easily and has trouble lifting her legs. Walking a city block, she says, can be a daunting task.
So why on Earth was the 40-year-old perched atop a hulking, gray boulder in the middle of the American River this weekend, a dozen people staring up at her and urging her to jump?

"I wouldn't have thought I'd be leaping off a rock, not in a million years," Vertnik says moments after taking the plunge -- kerplunk! -- into the 60-degree water.

"If someone had told me I could do something like this," she says while floating peacefully on her back, "I would have told them they're crazy."

Going crazy, or at least letting your hair down and having a blast, is precisely the point of the Saturday rafting outing with Disabled Sports USA.

The organization offers adventures, from snow skiing to water skiing, geared for people normally stuck on the sidelines watching others have fun.

Derrick Wydick, the man at the helm of Vertnik's raft, says those on the white water trip often arrive bowed not only by their disabilities, but by the expectations others have for them.

But after vanquishing Class 3 rapids with names like Satan's Cesspool, Recovery Room and Surprise (as in: Don't be surprised if you get launched from the raft) the rafters leave soaking wet, pumping their fists and feeling as if they've conquered the world.

"This is freedom for them," Wydick says.

On Saturday, two blue rafts emblazoned with DSUSA joined a parade of others setting out from the tiny town of Lotus on the south fork of the American River.

Vertnik and her mother, Joan, are with Wydick in his raft. The Blomquist family, including 12-year-old Ben, who is autistic, are in another raft.

Before the trip, Ben says that if he were an animal, he'd be a tiger.

On the river, he's more like an otter, sliding off the side of the raft in calm areas and swimming beside his mom or dad until a rumble of rapids signals that it's time to flop back in the boat.

On her raft, Julianne Vertnik is worried about keeping her pills dry and her body temperature cool.

Vertnik says multiple sclerosis crept up on her in 1990 while she was on an island-hopping cruise through the Caribbean.

For some reason, she could hardly move her feet while walking along a beach. At first, she thought her legs were merely shaky from spending time on the cruise ship.

Instead, her immune system was attacking the substance that covers her nerve fibers. Signals from her brain weren't getting through to her legs and simple maneuvers like walking or climbing stairs were becoming monumental tasks.

Her difficulties, she says, are exacerbated by the heat.

Vertnik compares her nerve fibers to a wooden door. When it's cool, she says, the door works perfectly. But in the heat, the wood expands and it's difficult to open and close.

In the same way, she says, her nerves don't seem to line up when it's hot, and her symptoms -- trouble moving her legs, the fatigue, the lack of balance -- grow worse.

On Saturday, with temperatures pushing 90 degrees, she worries aloud about handling rapids if she's sapped by the heat.

"I know what will fix that," Wydick says, a wicked smile on his face and his hand on his oar. A few seconds later, everyone in the bow of the raft is wet from Wydick's splashing, Vertnik has cooled off and the white water trip has officially begun.

Like Ben Blomquist, Vertnik slips out of the raft and into the American River. While Ben splashes around, Vertnik chooses to relax, letting the current pull her downstream toward Folsom Lake.

It's almost as if she's more at home in the water: It cools her down and the multiple sclerosis has less of an effect when she's submerged and weightless.

It's on land where she has her problems.

She walks slowly, has to lean against walls and occasionally falls down.

"I've had people stare at me like they think I'm drunk," she says.

So when Wydick pulls the raft up to a craggy boulder in the middle of the river and asks who wants to jump off, it's hard to believe that Vertnik will be up for the task.

"I don't think she can do it," says her mother, Joan, who chooses to stay on board.

But lately Julianne Vertnik has been feeling better. She takes a combination of medications that give her more energy and counteract her disease.

In April, she felt vigorous enough to take skiing lessons with Disabled Sports USA and in October she plans to go on a 4-wheel drive adventure with the group.

She decides that the big gray rock in the middle of the rushing river is just another obstacle she is going to conquer.

With the help of Wydick and fellow guide Paul Gugliuzza, she climbs -- slowly and with a few slips and stumbles -- to the top.

On her perch, the two guides let go of her arms and she hesitates for a moment. Then she takes her leap, submerges for second and pops up with a smile on her face.


The Bee's Matthew Barrows can be reached at (916) 321-1008 or

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