Wednesday, February 19, 2003
BY Todd Von Kampen
World-Herald Staff Writer
A gray wolf's brown eyes peer around a tree trunk, staring from a canvas on the wall of Brenda Hagedorn's home.
It testifies to the artistry inside her head - the only part of her body she still can control.
Hagedorn, 38, has battled for nearly 20 years against multiple sclerosis.
It started to take its toll just before the birth of her only child, Brandi, now 18. She may have had it earlier. No one is sure.
MS has robbed her of the legs that danced with her Oakland (Neb.) High School swing choir, the steady voice that sang with friends in a Fremont band, the arms and hands that made intricate American Indian-inspired crafts.
Hagedorn was able to create the wolf by holding a paintbrush between her teeth - a technique she learned two years ago - and with the constant support from family and friends like Joel Haugaard of Fremont, who supplied her easel.
"I've found a way now to let my creativity flow," she said. "I've still got my head, and I've still got my mouth."
Hagedorn's loved ones helped place a copy of her wolf painting at the Fremont Area Art Association's downtown Gallery 92 West.
Some of her paintings also will be displayed in June at Oakland's Loess Hills Resource Conservation and Development Office.
"She just deserves some notoriety," said her mother, Cyndi Johnson. She and Hagedorn's grandmother, Eunice Garner, live in Oakland.
Inside her Fremont home, Hagedorn refuses to be passive. Flicks of her head, amplified through a special headset, activate her stereo and TV, turn on lights and answer her telephone.
"The best part is I can do things that other people couldn't do," she said.
Art, music and dance were long part of Hagedorn's life, first as a child in the Los Angeles area, then back in Nebraska.
But her mother had an unusual reason for making her take dancing lessons - to help overcome apparent youthful clumsiness. It may have been an early sign of MS.
"I'd walk and trip for no reason and stub the nails right off my toes," said Hagedorn, a 1982 Oakland High School graduate.
Her problems began to multiply in 1984, when she was six months' pregnant and living in San Diego. Her eyes would get blurry. Coffee cups would fly from her hand.
"She would be driving and say, 'Mom, I can't see,'" Johnson said.
It took four years to confirm it was MS, which destroys myelin - the natural insulation that helps nerves conduct electrical impulses.
Hagedorn, who moved to Fremont in 1985, finally got a clear diagnosis in 1988 at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. She was waitressing, tending bar and caring for her little girl.
But by age 9, Brandi was cooking and helping with her mother's needs. Hagedorn gave up work in 1992, began using a wheelchair full-time in 1997 and lost arm movement in 2000.
MS can do little more to Hagedorn, said Dr. Manjula Tella, a Fremont neurologist who has treated her for a decade.
Researchers have developed various treatments, but Hagedorn cannot physically tolerate the ones she has tried, she said.
Three Fremont women, led by six-year veteran Joyce Backman, tend to Hagedorn's physical needs much of the day.
When they're gone, Brandi, now a Metropolitan Community College student, picks up the slack. She always has.
In high school, "I didn't get into extracurricular activities. I couldn't," said Brandi, a 2002 Fremont High School graduate.
Caring for her mother has cost her scholarships, she said. On the other
hand, "I had to grow up so fast that I missed the silly stage of high school.
. . . "
© 2003 Omaha World-Herald