May 1, 2004
Real Living with Multiple Sclerosis
GRADUATING FROM UCLA's five-year civil engineering program in 1993, with an environmental minor, Jerice DeLynn Hill just couldn't see herself pursuing a career as an engineer. Something a bit more social was called for, thought Hill (who goes by the first name Lynn). To that end, Hill gained admission to Howard University's School of Law, and social it was. Even though law school itself was hard, a lot of parties, a lot of dancing, and a lot of fun were liberally mixed into the law school experience.
Returning from a class trip to Puerto Rico in 1996, the year she would graduate from the Washington, D.C. law school, Hill went to bed and awoke the following morning with a weird numbness in her left hand, as if, she said, she'd slept on it. She tried to shake it off but to no avail. It was with her all day.
Still, Hill paid it little heed. So what? she thought. I'm right-handed and can still write. It's no big deal. But in March of that same year, a dull numbness started going up her right hand and then her arm. On a following morning, one-half of her body experienced that same dull numbness.
Moving to Chicago in 1998, the city of her birth and early childhood, Hill moved in with her father. "I was really stressed in Chicago," she said, "because I was trying to find work and trying to pass the bar." Additionally, her physical problems escalated. "I lived downtown, and I was tripping and falling over seemingly nothing. That's when I knew something wasn't right."
It was at this point, in March of that year, that Hill "started feeling not so great."
"I hadn't recognized it [the stressful environment of living with her father] at first, but my mom did," said Hill. "And she said, 'No, you're coming home.' She made me come back [to the Los Angeles area] and I'm glad she did. My dad is not a touchy-feely-I-love-you-all-the-time type of guy. . .I mean nothing I did was quite enough."
Sent home by her father in September 1999 and picked up at the airport by her mother, Hill was immediately whisked off to Kaiser Permanente. On the way, she asked, "Can't we go home first?"
"No," replied her mother, "we're here-we're in L.A. We're going to the doctor. That's why you're home."
Hill was told at Kaiser that she was probably tired and should rest. Unsatisfied with the explanation, her mother arranged for Hill to be seen by the head neurologist at L.A.'s King/Drew Medical Center.
A battery of tests, including an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), and a week's stay in the hospital followed. Two months later, she was diagnosed with MS.
"I thought it was kind of weird," said Hill. "I didn't know what MS was. I thought, okay, you guys finally named it, but I thought everything was going to be the same. I felt the same. I could walk."
The right attitude
But everything was not going to be the same. Today, one thing Hill deals with is a slight tremor in her hands. When either reaching for or being handed something, the tremor can be triggered. Yet, Hill has noticed that if she takes a deep breath and just relaxes for a moment, the unwanted response can be quelled. Now all she has to deal with are her impatience with completing tasks and the very real possibility of knocking over objects.
"It helps," said Hill, "when you're around people who understand what's going on and that you don't have an absolute fit." One thing she's noticed about living with MS is that when she becomes stressed, everything gets worse. "I just don't perform well," she said. "I'm stuttering, I'm clumsy, everything's a mess."
The 33-year-old lawyer-to-be began using a manual wheelchair three years ago. Additionally, she can wall-walk about 100 yards at a time. A power chair stands ready, but for the moment, close living quarters stymies its indoor use.
With a walker, Hill can travel about a city block. She uses it with the thought that she's going to make herself walk again, but possessing empowering implements doesn't make the acceptance of having MS any less difficult.
"I was so active, was so much fun, and I did so many things," Hill said. "I just can't understand why I have it, but my family has been right there. I mean, anything I need they're there, they'll do it for me. And I appreciate that, 'cause I understand a lot of people don't have that family support, but I do, absolutely."
Hill found support outside of her family, too-her relationships with the opposite sex, for instance, which Hill initially thought were going to be a thing of the past.
"I thought, oh God, now I'm never going to get a date," she said. "No guy's ever going to look at me. I'm in this wheelchair and yuck, yuck, yuck. But I've met some wonderful guys. It doesn't seem to matter to them. They may be [put off] for other reasons, but this [wheelchair] doesn't seem to matter to them."
Another consequence of having MS was that it brought Hill to the recognition and realization of who her friends were. "The people who just like the fun, silly, dancing Lynn. . .they don't come around as much and that's okay, because the ones I met in law school, they act like they don't even see the wheelchair," said Hill. "They get smart with me, we talk about each other, we yell at each other and everything, like nothing's changed. I've so often heard, 'You're still Lynn. I don't care about that wheelchair-you're still Lynn.'"
Things that have changed
While she acknowledges that her vision has always been "yucky" and that she started wearing glasses in the first grade, when MS hit, her vision worsened. Today she gauges it to be around 20/200 and 20/240.
"I'm legally blind," said Hill. "It doesn't bother me, though. I've always known that my vision was poor, so for someone to say you're legally blind was really no surprise. I was like, 'Oh yeah?'"
And while she no longer drives, she likes being a passenger. She has found playing with the radio to be very enjoyable.
Another issue Hill deals with is fatigue. She tires easily. But, she said, a 20-minute nap feels like a full night's sleep, and afterward she's ready to go again.
Having worked for the Consumer Product Safety Commission during the summer of her second year of law school, part-time all during her third year, and a tad after her third year, all she needs to do is let them know when she gets going again, she said.
In addition, a lot of people are encouraging her to practice in the field of disability rights and to be an advocate for those in the disability community. But before any career decision is made, the bar, which she's taking this year, looms large.
Asked if she had ever considered taking a legal position prior to passing the bar, Hill was succinct.
"I don't want anything creeping up in the way," she said. "Right now it's me and the bar 'til it's over. I figure if I study and I focus, I could pass. That's what I intend to do."
And do she will.
Copyright © 2004, Real Living with Multiple Sclerosis