More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Roxboro woman to visit TV game

Dec 16, 2001 : 8:57 pm ET
By CLAUDIA ASSIS : The Herald-Sun

ROXBORO -- Tammy O’Briant held the frame, dusting it off quickly with her hands, and looked at the younger version of herself, with long and wavy brown hair against a sky-blue background.

She had her hair cut a couple of years ago.

"I wasn’t able to hold a hair brush and comb it like I used to," she said.

She has also avoided clothes with buttons lately. She stopped doing cross-stitch and driving outside Roxboro, and of her former favorite pastimes she has kept only gardening and fishing.

"What is your name again? I forget stuff," she said.

O’Briant has multiple sclerosis, an illness that brings several steps of neurological impairment. Besides forgetfulness, her symptoms include blurred vision, fatigue and sometimes difficulty in walking and keeping balance.

Since being diagnosed in October 1999, the 43-year-old believes she must spread a message of hope and faith to people around her. And she has done so, remaining active in her church and her community despite her disease.

And earlier this month, O’Briant received word that she will be able to take that message farther than Person County: She has won a Multiple Sclerosis Foundation grant to fly to California and be part of the audience of "The Price Is Right," her favorite television show.

A native of Berea, a small community outside Oxford, O’Briant left North Carolina some 20 years ago once, to go to Nashville, Tenn. Other than that, the family has spent a handful of summers in Myrtle Beach, S.C., at a relative’s borrowed beach house. She has never flown.

O’Briant wrote an essay about her experience with the disease. It was selected from among about 500 other entries. She won $1,000 toward her dream trip.

On Jan. 28 at 9:20 a.m. she and her husband, Tim O’Briant, will board a United Airlines Canadair jet and fly to Los Angeles.

The next day around 5 a.m., the couple will line up at the doors of "The Price is Right" studios and hope she gets picked as a contestant.

O’Briant has been watching the show for many years. When she worked as an assistant at Southern Middle School, she taped the game show so she wouldn’t miss it.

"I can remember when [host] Bob Barker had black hair," she said, chuckling.

Now at home on disability benefits, she watches it every morning.

"It is just fun watching the people winning prizes. I just like to see other people happy," she said.

Watching it on a recent weekday, she rehearsed what she will tell producers so as to be selected to play.

"I’ve been thinking about it. First, I will tell them I have MS and I am there because of an MS Foundation grant. Then that I’ve always dreamed about being on the show," she said.

The excitement and physical activity — like every other "The Price is Right" contestant, she dreams of announcer Rod Roddy calling her name, of giving the other audience members high-fives as she comes on down and maybe even kissing Barker — might bring consequences for her.

"Then I will just have to suffer the next couple of days. But that’s OK; I don’t mind suffering," she said.

The first time multiple sclerosis showed its face to O’Briant, she was driving to a dry cleaner after work. Suddenly she lost vision in her right eye and pulled over on Main Street.

"I couldn’t remember who I was, what I was doing there. I have no idea how long I sat there."

Six months and countless tests later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

"I think the reason I have MS is to help other people, for being there for them and telling them you cannot give up, because if you give up, then you lost. I am not going to lose it."

Hope comes from several vials — she takes 25 pills a day — and shots every other day. So far the disease has been kept at bay. The last "really, really bad day" happened about three months ago.

"I couldn’t get up. I had flu-like symptoms, and I slept about a day and a half," O’Briant said

When a Durham neurologist diagnosed her, she tried to be brave, she said.

"I didn’t cry. Tears just kind of came in the side of my eyes."

Back home she and Tim embraced each other and cried together.

"I told him I was sorry," she said. "I don’t know why, I just felt like saying I was sorry. I knew it was going to be a long road to travel."

Tim, her husband, is the family’s cook and handyman.

The Los Angeles flight will also be his first. The closest he has been to California was when he drove to West Virginia, to help his former pastor with a church party. There he made a full-fledged, true Tar Heel pig pickin’.

"[The pig] had an apple in the month, sunglasses and the whole nine yards," he said.

His wife’s illness has been an adjustment for all in the family, he said.

"Some days are not as good as other days. She used to be pretty independent, doing things for herself, and this kind of slowed her down a little bit. But like a friend of mine says, there are no bad days, just good days in disguise."

He has been trying to be there for her and offer moral support, he said. Not only as her husband but also as a best friend, he added.

He is keeping his fingers crossed that she will be on the show — there is very little that could make her happier. Tim laughed when asked whether he likes the show, but after a pause said he likes it even though he is not a "great big fan." He has to be there with her.

Tim can do anything, O’Briant said — even bring her the happiness she hadn’t known until she was 35: a blissful marriage.

"He built me a greenhouse, so I can plant seeds and watch them grow. That is something that helps me to feel productive," O’Briant said. "He built me a fish pond; there are 21 fish there now. We do other stuff together; we sit on the porch in the morning and have coffee. These are things I love the most."

When they met 10 years ago, they both had been scarred from their divorces. They became friends first, she said, and married two years later.

"When I met him, I knew he was my soul mate; I knew he was the person I was supposed to be with," she said.

Tim is a trustee at the family’s church, Lea’s Chapel United Methodist. He also coaches midget football, rakes an elderly neighbor’s yard, grows hot peppers and has been slowly and steadily remodeling an old barn in the family’s property, which he calls the Lizard Lounge.

He has three girls from his previous marriage and she has three boys. Her oldest, now a 27-year-old Oxford police officer who has two children of his own, was born when O’Briant was 16.

"I lived up to my responsibility, I had my child and raised him," she said. But she had to drop out of school and work at a jewelry store in Oxford to make ends meet. Sometimes she would work two jobs, and friends would watch her son or he would be in daycare.

But they made it. Sometimes she looks back and is amazed about how they made it work, she said. O’Briant started working at 14, helping in her uncle’s tobacco farm in Berea.

She later got a GED and got a job as an office assistant at Duke University Medical Center. She got tired of the hour-long drive home and found a job with the Person County Schools.

The O’Briants watch TV together in a family room decorated with family portraits and small, inspirational wood signs such as one declaring the threshold over which it hangs an "angel’s crossing." An old armoire, built by O’Briant’s grandfather, is decorated with Tim’s dried hot peppers and pickles and preserves she has made.

During dinner, she sometimes will say something completely off the wall, and her children will burst out in laughter, she said. Then for a second or two she stares at them and doesn’t know what made them laugh.

"I say, ‘What? Did I just say something stupid?’ And they go, ‘Yes.’ "

They have dinner together every evening — her husband believes it keeps the family together, she said.

Her future is unpredictable as anyone else’s, she said. But she has a clear vision of what she wants it to be.

"The way I see my future, it is being here in my home with my family, my grandchildren and my future grandchildren, being here with Tim and hopefully travel some," she said. "But until they find a cure, I don’t know," she said, wiping a furtive tear from the corner of her eye.

© 2001 The Durham Herald Company