By ALYCE KLEIN
At age 13, Kelly "Girl" Sutton - a professional driver who finished 21st in Saturday's NASCAR Goody Dash Series - experienced some scary changes in her body. Suddenly, she seemed clumsy, was in pain, fatigued and had problems with her vision.
Her family doctor told her mother the symptoms were "all in my head . . . a result of my age."
But, by the time Sutton turned 16, she learned her worsening symptoms were, in reality, quite serious. She was suffering from multiple sclerosis, more commonly known as MS.
Medical experts agree, symptoms may seem imagined in the beginning. They are hard to detect through tests - complaints such as numbness and tingling, visual changes, diffuse pain and fatigue. Some doctors may attribute them to overall anxiety. The clinical diagnosis of MS may, as in Sutton's case, take several years.
"When I was 16, I lost all feeling in my right side, and when my mother took me to the doctor, he told her that I was looking for attention," said Sutton.
"My mother never had any problems with me as a teenager, and there was no reason to believe that I would make this up. When the doctor took me into the examination room and began putting needles in my leg, and I didn't have any reaction, he realized something was wrong. I was referred to a neurologist, who was able to diagnose my problem."
Sutton learned she had MS after undergoing an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and a spinal tap. She was told that she had eight to ten years left to walk.
"My life crashed in front of me," Sutton said. "As a teen-ager, you think you are invincible, that nothing can harm you. I became depressed and angry, not knowing how to deal with my feelings. I was angry at a disease I didn't understand, and I didn't want to learn anything about it."
Those suffering with MS are not alone. According to the MS Foundation, it is one of the most common neurological disorders, diagnosed in more than 350,000 people in the United States today. Although the cause is still unknown, some researchers postulate that a virus provokes the disorder. Others say that inherited genes and an imbalance in the immune system influence individual vulnerability.
This lifelong disorder can strike anyone; however, it most often affects women between that ages of 30 and 50. It is not considered fatal, contagious or directly inherited, although the prevalence of MS is higher in families than in the general population.
The type of MS that affects Sutton is characterized by exacerbations and remissions. Some people with this type of MS experience mild symptoms that are difficult to deal with, but do not lead to disability. Others experience severe attacks, followed by a period of recovery.
There are two other types of MS, which are progressive. The first is severe and the person may progress to serious disability from the time of diagnosis. The second occurs when the person affected progresses to disability after experiencing exacerbations and remissions for many years.
"My attitude changed in 1990, when I had my daughter," explains the now 29-year-old Sutton. "I knew that I had to be strong and survive for her. I began to learn about the disease and sought therapy. I tried to prove that I was strong, so I shoveled asphalt for a living.
"In 1996, I ended up in a wheelchair for a year, and thought I would never get back out. Now, as I get older and become more mature, I don't push so hard. When I am tired, I take a nap."
The first six months of being wheelchair-bound, Sutton was lost in the pit of depression.
About five months after leaving her wheelchair, Sutton was back racing -- something she had been committed to since 1991. Although this third-generation driver copes with some fatigue on a daily basis, she knows her limits and says having MS does not affect her ability on the race track.
"I am grateful for the opportunity to race in Daytona," said Sutton. "My family and crew have been wonderful. I truly feel that the support I get from them keeps me going and helps me to be successful."
Klein is a registered
nurse with a bachelor's degree in nursing and a free-lance writer.