Topeka News The Topeka Capital-Journal
Last modified at 11:32 p.m. on Sunday, January 30, 2000
By SCOTT R. GREENBERG
Eric Simons is a seasoned mountain climber. The 44-year-old Boulder, Colo., resident has edged his way up hundreds of rock and ice peaks in the northeast and throughout the country.
Four years ago, he woke up on a Monday morning -- the Monday before Thanksgiving -- and his right side was completely numb.
"I had no feeling from the neck down. My right arm was paralyzed," he said. His doctor diagnosed his symptoms as psychosomatic.
But Simons had an MRI done at a local hospital and damage to his neck was discovered. A spinal tap was performed at a later visit, and the procedure revealed evidence of multiple sclerosis.
The MS diagnosis came "completely out of the blue," but when Simons considered it, he thought back to problems with his right hand that cropped up as early as 1984. A doctor then had determined his hand was affected with reflex dystrophy, a repetitive motion malady similar to carpal tunnel syndrome.
Simons had been out windsurfing three or four days a week, and his doctor thought the sport was putting undue stress on his wrists.
"I think it was a misdiagnosis. I think it was MS," Simons said.
Simons will be giving a talk at 1 p.m. with a question and answer session following at 2 p.m. Feb. 5 in Meeting Room Four at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center. Titled "Climbing the Peaks: A Story of Personal Triumph," the talk will cover Simons' experiences as a mountain climber and his methods of dealing with MS.
"MS is really as much an emotional and psychological a disease as it is a physical disease. When I was diagnosed, I was devastated because it came out of the blue. I went from being a very healthy mountain climber to an invalid. That's a very difficult transition."
After that November morning four years ago, Simons was having seizures every day. And since that flare up, "I haven't gone into complete remission," he said. "I'm a lot better, there's no comparison. But I still have tingling in a lot of my body." However he calls the symptoms "very manageable."
And Simons remains astonishingly active, seemingly unaffected by the disease.
Since his diagnosis, he climbed Aconcagua. At just under 23,000 feet, it is the highest mountain in South America. He has ascended Pico de Orizaba, an 18,400-foot volcano in Mexico. While in Seattle for a talk he was going to give on his disease he climbed Mt. Rainier. He has also done a good deal of hiking up 14,000-foot peaks around Colorado.
And he plans to climb the highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro, which towers more than 19,000 feet. He also plans to scale Denali (better known as Mt. McKinley), and, much to his wife's chagrin, the Himalayas.
Climbing seriously since 1972, Simons has learned how to accommodate his disease. "You adjust to your illness," he said. "I was a vertical rock and ice climber, I can't do the steep stuff anymore because of a lesion on the spinal cord up in my neck. I can't look up; it crimps that part of the spinal cord. Now I do bigger mountains that I can trudge up. I never was interested in that before. That's just an example of how we have to adjust."
A key contributing factor to Simons' ability to live with and seemingly overcome his disease has been a medication called Betaseron, which he injects every other day. He brings the Betaseron with him on his climbs and injects the medication in his tent.
Sheri R. Daudet, branch manager of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Mid-America Chapter, said Simons' talk was "something that we're really pleased to present as someone living with MS who has aspired in life in spite of an illness that's very life-changing. It's important for people with MS to see other people living successfully with the disease. He's a wonderful example of what's possible."
Simons, husband to Linnea and the father of three boys, Evan, 17, Marc, 14, and Noah, 11, is a lawyer by training, was an executive in the oil business, then returned to school and graduated with a master's degree in environmental policy and management. He was lining up consulting work in the field when he received his diagnosis.
He now works 25 to 60 hours a week running his local youth soccer club but will be leaving the position in April. "I want to dedicate myself to the MS community through these talks. I'm chairman of the Betaseron Champions of Courage Foundation, which gives grants to people with MS who are on Betaseron who have a dream or project that will be inspirational to others with MS."
The program is free and open to the public. A complimentary lunch will
be served. To register, call Brendan at the MS Society office no later
than today at 272-5292 or (800) 745-7148.