More MS news articles for February 2001

Conquering disability

Positive attitude helps man cope

February 12, 2001
The Kalamazoo Gazette

KALAMAZOO -- At least once a day, Jerry Albertson will walk into his office, or down the street, and think, "Wow!"

Just standing steadily on his own two feet is enough to make Albertson break out in a grin. A former college athlete who was struck with multiple sclerosis 15 years ago, Albertson has used a wheelchair most of his adult life.

"It's dramatic," said Kalamazoo neurologist Dr. Dennis Jewett, who has been treating Albertson for chronic, progressively severe MS for years.

Albertson, 37, will be the first to agree that the changes in his life are remarkable, that the family of new interferon drugs he began using about 18 months ago worked unusually well in his case.

Those "miracles of modern medicine" as the Kalamazoo native calls them, have made all the difference in his life.

The youngest of 10 children, Albertson was raised by a family that was passionate about education, friendship and University of Notre Dame sports. Being active was taken for granted. He played sports at Hackett Catholic Central, caddied at the Kalamazoo Country Club and played basketball at Nazareth College.

He was visiting his brother over the Christmas holidays in 1985 when he awoke one morning with double vision. His legs wouldn't hold him up.

A couple of hours later, he was lying behind a thin curtain in an emergency room hundreds of miles from home when he overheard two doctors talking.

"He's got MS," one said.

In an instant, Albertson's carefully planned career path suddenly disappeared.

"I was the proverbial deer in the headlights," Albertson said. "Scared. Real scared."

Albertson would regain his vision and, initially, some of his mobility. But he had to give up his job and spend the next few months trying to stabilize his health. By the next fall he was offered a job as director of residential living at Nazareth.

At first, he could get around with a cane. Then he needed a four-pronged cane. Soon he found it was getting tough just to get out of bed. One day somebody loaned him an electric wheelchair.

"It was awesome," he said. "Finally I could get from point A to point B."

He was finding, though, that adversity also was a great teacher.

And others were finding that Albertson's attitude toward his growing disability was dogged determination and optimism.

He still remembered the day he went to get a 1978 van with a wheelchair lift and hand controls for the brake and gas. And he still talks about it as if it were a luxury car just off the line. To him, the old, specially equipped van was just one more ticket to mobility.

"What could stop me now?" he asked.

But there was plenty to stop him.

The diabetes he'd had since childhood was becoming more severe, sometimes causing him to black out. And even the best wheelchair could never match a pair of legs. Some sidewalks, he discovered, lacked curb cuts.

Almost worse than the physical barriers was the sympathy, the almost universal and instinctual reaction from others that it was "too bad" he had gotten MS.

"Why is it 'too bad?' " he asked. "The sympathy creates a distance."

And always there was his beloved Notre Dame, whose games he watched from a wheelchair section of the stands. He tried to take his experiences day by day. He tried to be realistic and avoid false hope.

But he also willed himself to be positive and avoid bitterness.

"It's kind of a selfish thing," he said. "I like to be happy."

And for more than 14 years, for the most part, he was happy. About 18 months ago, major medical innovations began to gradually but dramatically affect Albertson's condition.

One was the family of drugs to treat his MS. The other was a pump, worn on his body, that delivers insulin automatically. Just as surely as his condition had gone from cane, to four-pronged cane to a wheelchair, it went in reverse. Although, Albertson still uses a wheelchair when he wants to conserve his strength.

Copyright © 1994-2001 South Bend Tribune