June 13, 2003
By: Brian French, Staff Writer
Lloyd C. Bird High School senior Ashley Warren has participated in the Walk for MS for as long as she can remember. But she never knew what multiple sclerosis was.
She got a hard lesson about it last summer when she was diagnosed with
the disease herself.
And just like that, her life shifted dramatically. Ashley went from talking about traveling to needing a walker to get through the hallways at school.
But she didn't need it when she walked during commencement exercises yesterday. And while her walker might now be in her rearview mirror, her desire to be a doctor isn't.
"I will stop at nothing to get what I want," she said.
Ashley's bedroom is adorned with posters in all the colors of the wind, everything from rock stars to Hello Kitty.
They gave her the first signal that something wasn't right when she woke up one morning in May 2002.
"I couldn't see them," she said. "I thought maybe my eye mask was on too tight.
She told her mother Regina, then drove to an eye doctor, who suspected an infection.
But the eyesight problems remained, which also affected her balance. Unsatisfied with the original diagnosis, Regina and Ashley went to get a second opinion.
An MRI showed spots on Ashley's brain, and a spinal tap confirmed the worst.
"She was legally blind all summer," Regina said. "The doctor said she had no business driving."
Ashley's reaction? No reaction at all.
"I was numb to it," Ashley said. "I wanted to be strong. The doctors were mad at me, but I was like 'whatever.' I knew I would be sick for a long time."
The diminished vision is still with Ashley, who has related balance problems and may have a cyst on her bladder.
"It's like someone's holding wax paper in front of me," said the 18-year-old. MS is an ugly snowflake; no two cases are identical, and each patient has a different series of symptoms. "I can make out shapes but I can't see faces."
When Ashley went back to Bird for her senior year, she did so under drastically changed rules.
She started with five classes in the first semester, but by the end she was down to two. Friends wrote class notes with pieces of carbon paper underneath so Ashley wouldn't have to try to take down information off a blackboard she could barely identify. A homebound teacher helped fill in the gaps.
"I had good teachers," Ashley said. "Without them I wouldn't have been able to do anything."
The questions were the worst.
Do you really have MS? Is it contagious? Are you sure you have it? Aren't you too young? If you can't see, how come you're able to walk around?
At first, Ashley didn't mind dealing with it. But the relentless barrage - some from friends, some from former friends, some from adults, some with a heavy tinge of sarcasm or willful ignorance - eventually eroded her tolerance.
"It's hard for kids to understand," Ashley said, quickly warming up to the topic. "They were scared to ask me at first. Now there's not a day that goes by when somebody doesn't ask me something. I've become a human dictionary for MS."
MS is an ugly snowflake; no two cases are identical, and each patient has a different series of symptoms.
"People think I'm faking," Ashley said. "One morning I'm fine, then next morning I'm not. The doctor told me it's like you're the only MS patient in the world."
Which makes her ambivalent at a time in life when most are already shaky about their lot in life.
"Cancer patients are sick every day," Ashley said. "But I'm not. Where do I fit in? Where's my place in the world?"
But don't confuse her existential musings with self-loathing.
"I don't want people to feel sorry for me," Ashley said. "People ask me if I'm going to die, and I say sure, everyone has to die someday. I try to put a lot of humor into it."
Ashley's still going to college, though not where she intended. She had notions of going to Christopher Newport in Newport News, but she's spending at least her first semester at John Tyler Community College because nobody's sure where she'll be medically by then.
She brooded, then she got over it. Now she'll be going to school with her mother, who takes classes while working at Philip Morris.
"My mom pushes me hard," Ashley said. "She makes me think there's nothing I can't do because I'm sick."
Regina and cousin Jewel, a 21-year-old marketing student at Virginia Commonwealth University, provide Ashley's first line of support. So too does her dog, a miniature Yorkie donated by Poly's Pups in Ashland at the request of two of Regina's co-workers.
The experience has made Ashley mature beyond her teen years.
"I know I'm a different person," Ashley said. "Something like this brings out the maturity in you.
"But deep down I'm still a big baby."
Recently Ashley participated in the MS Walk again, this time knowing full well what MS stood for and why she was out there. She walked all five miles and raised more than $1,500.
Walking across the stage at the Siegel Center to receive her diploma
wasn't so hard after all.
Copyright © 2003, The Progress-Index