BY JOE DUGGAN Lincoln Journal Star
She'll always remember the exact date, because it was the morning after her daughter's fifth birthday.
"I blew it off," she said. "I thought it was nothing." In a day or two, the numbness spread to her left arm, then her left leg. The mother of two attributed the problem to a pinched nerve in her neck. After all, her assistant manager's job at Pier 1 Imports in Grand Island involved a lot of physical work. And who knows, maybe she did it while throwing a Frisbee with her kids the night before.
By the end of the week, she decided to see a chiropractor. He gave her a battery of physical evaluations not unlike sobriety tests police give suspected drunken drivers.
"I failed miserably," she said.
The chiropractor referred her to a neurologist. She underwent more tests, but a diagnosis was hard to pinpoint.
Each night, the symptoms progressed. Each morning, she found it increasingly difficult to keep her balance while walking. When she talked, her words slurred. It seemed her vision was declining.
Then, in June, she drove herself to a doctor's appointment.
"He was very angry," she said, her brown eyes suddenly vacant as she lingered over a memory nearly 4 years old. "He was angry because I came by myself, and he did not have good news." Imagine how you'd react if one day you learned you had a horrible disease. A disease you'd heard about on TV, or from the people who seek donations to find a cure. You might even know someone who has it.
But now you're the someone who has multiple sclerosis.
We should all have the grace, courage and strength of Jill Manning-Fitzgerald.
Sitting on the leather couch of her rural Doniphan home, she pulled her legs into a crossed position and held Bailey, her cocker spaniel-poodle mix, on her lap.
Her brown eyes sparkled as she talked about her 14-year-old Stephen. She smiled a beautiful smile when she described her 8-year-old Natalie.
It's easy to detect the ways the rare form of MS has affected her life. It's apparent because of the motorized wheelchair next to the couch. The disease makes her speak very slowly, and when she tires, the words tend to slur. Controlling the movements of her hands requires intense concentration and there are a limited number of things she can do.
These are the things she can't control. Some things she can't prevent the disease from taking.
But she won't let it take everything.
She still zealously owns her mind. She can control her attitude and outlook. She won't let the disease hear her complain or sap her courage.
MS is insidious because it strikes without warning, particularly young adults and women. The disease destroys myelin, a complex covering that protects nerve fibers and is essential for conducting electricity. Without myelin, nerves simply can't function.
In Manning-Fitzgerald's case, the disease attacked the myelin in her brain. Although MS affects each sufferer differently, the vision problems, paralysis, numbness, bowel and bladder control difficulties and other symptoms usually progress gradually and are often interrupted by remission.
In Manning-Fitzgerald's case, the attack was relentless. Within six months of her diagnosis, she was using a decorative cane from Pier 1 to walk. Then she needed a walker. Several months later, she couldn't walk at all.
Tremors wracked her arms, making it impossible for her to cross-stitch, craft the pine cone Christmas trees she once made for friends and family every December, or even write her name. She had to give up the job she dearly loved.
Now, she allows an array of drugs to battle the symptoms while she fights back with positive thinking and humor. Like when she described the experimental brain surgery she underwent at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., that has helped control the tremors Incredibly, she was conscious during the entire operation. They used Novocain to deaden feeling in her scalp.
"When they drilled my skull, my eyes and teeth wiggled," she said. "They had to use a Black & Decker drill." She laughed so hard it filled the room. She's even thought about buying a Black & Decker drill to use as a visual aid when telling the joke.
Humor helped her kids get through the scary, early days of the disease. It helped her, too.
But there wasn't any humor left in her marriage. Without going into a lot of detail, she said the marriage was troubled before she was diagnosed with MS. She didn't have the energy to care for her children and herself and a husband who didn't care. So she divorced him.
Now it's just her and the kids. There's Stephen, the straight "A" student who plays any and all sports. He says helping his mother in and out of her chair keeps him buff for competition.
What has her struggle with MS taught him?
"That you can do anything you want as long as you try," he said.
And there's Natalie, the bright, artistic pixie who loves cats and playing "Sorry" and "Guess Who?" with her mom. Her mother is special, she said.
The National MS Society agrees. It named Manning-Fitzgerald the mother of the year in 1999. The society's 48th mother of the year was the first from Nebraska.
"We're always amazed by her confidence and strength," said Susan Gass, vice president of the Nebraska Chapter of the MS Society in Omaha, which nominated her for the award.
Last month, the society flew Manning-Fitzgerald and her family to Washington, D.C., to see the sights, stay in a five-star hotel and meet President Bill Clinton.
"I'm the luckiest kid in the world, 'cause I got to meet the president," Natalie said.
Manning-Fitzgerald said the children are her blessings. They help her with everyday tasks. She also receives a lot of help from her parents, Jeanie and Wayne Manning.
She won't surrender to MS because she won't give up on her family. But along the way, she said, the disease has taught her vital lessons.
"It's proved to me things aren't important, people are important," she said. "It's actually made me a better person." Before the disease slowed her down, Manning-Fitzgerald didn't always have time for the little things, said her mother.
"We've had a wonderful three years together," Jeanie Manning said. "There's just a lot of things we never took time for because we were always too busy." But Manning-Fitzgerald also believes firmly she'll get a reprieve. She hasn't had a remission yet, she said, but she will.
It will come to her while she sleeps.
"I believe that's what's going to happen," she said. "One day I'll wake
up and walk right out of my room." Joe Duggan can be reached at email@example.com