July 25, 2002
Phillip J. Milano, River City News editor
The first time she heard her mother had multiple sclerosis, Radji Wilson thought it meant her mom was going to die.
The first time she had to use a 2-inch needle to give her a shot of Interferon-beta 1, she cried.
Radji Wilson has come a long way since those early years, and now the 15-year-old Northside resident has been held out as a hero and national example for teen caregivers in the July 15 issue of People magazine.
"She's my right arm, left arm, my legs at times," said her mother, April Wilson. "I thank God I have her . . . when everything is hurting, and my muscles have tightened up and I can't function normally."
April Wilson was diagnosed with MS in 1998, when she was 30 and Radji was 11. The chronic disease affects the central nervous system and can cause anything from extraordinary fatigue and difficulty walking to double vision, paralysis and blindness. Though she still manages to work as a correctional counselor for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, some days are worse than others, she said.
It's at those times that her daughter steps up.
"It starts out when my mom comes home," Radji Wilson said. "I ask her how her day was. If she says it was a bad day, we get the medicine going. Then I see if she wants to eat, and if not, I leave her alone to rest. If she needs a shot, I get the shot ready and give it to her."
As a single mom living in Arlington at the time of her diagnosis, April Wilson wondered how her daughter would handle the situation. Later they moved in with April's mother, Ludella, and sister Temal to ease the strain of the disease.
Radji's care comes in many forms, her mother said.
"MS tries to take my memory, and she [Radji] helps remember stuff for me," April Wilson said. "She says, 'Mama you already told me that' or 'Did you pay that bill' or 'Call school and register me' or 'Take your pill' or 'Take your shower.' "
She helps out financially, too.
"She baby-sits, and she gives me the money," April Wilson said. "I don't get child support. She doesn't even say anything; she just hands me the money."
Between 2,200 and 2,300 residents in North Florida have MS, but the disease has a ripple effect on more than 10,000 people because it impacts family members and caregivers, according to the North Florida chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Of special concern are children of those with the disease, many of whom come home from a long day at school only to face housework, shopping, dinner preparation and more, said Jennifer Lee, local chapter president.
"Some give injectable medications, and you don't typically think of a 10- or 11-year-old having the mature ability to do that," she said. "At my age I still squirm when I see someone getting a shot."
To help, the chapter conducts an annual camp for up to 50 children ages 7 to 14 who have a parent with MS, Lee said. It's a chance for them to be kids, and also to get the counseling and attention they need.
"They may need somebody else to talk to, and they may have a higher level of confusion about the disease," she said. "They may think it's [the disease] their fault, or that it's too hard for them. Their stress level shouldn't be as high as it can sometimes get."
According to Lee, Radji Wilson is very responsible and has dealt well with her mother's predicament. She's even a featured speaker on the video the chapter uses to educate the community about MS.
"She's very eloquent and very mature for her age," Lee said. "She understands the disease better than a lot of adults and is very helpful to her mom. It's extraordinary for a teen . . . She speaks well for her peers."
All of which April Wilson knows first-hand.
"God is first, but Radji is everything to me," April Wilson said. "If I know she's OK, then I'm OK. I could be in bed crying, but if she's OK, I am OK. She's the kindest person you ever want to meet."
For Radji, it's all in a day's work. And it's all about payback.
"My mom has always been there for me, doing for me, and now that she needs my help, it would be out of line to say 'I can't help you,' " she said. "She needs me now."
River City News Editor Phillip J. Milano can be reached at 359- 4483.
TO GET INFORMATION
For more information about MS or about the North Florida chapter of
the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's annual MS 150 Bike Tour fund-raiser
Sept. 21 and 22, visit Jacksonville.com, keyword msnfl.
© 2002 The Florida Times-Union