June 16, 2004
"What's wrong with your legs?"
If Debbie Whittington had a dollar for every time a child asked that question during her years as a Wal-Mart greeter, she could single-handedly fill the coffers of the Tri-State Multiple Sclerosis Association.
Whittington never resented that question and she didn't dodge it. Instead, she patiently explained that she has a condition called multiple sclerosis (MS), and it keeps her legs from working properly. That's why she had to do her job from the confines of her electric wheelchair.
In 1984, after experiencing numbness in her legs, she was diagnosed with the disease that attacks the central nervous system. But diagnosis didn't come easily. In fact, one doctor informed her that her problem was psychological. "I knew something was physically wrong," says Whittington, whose MS was evident during MRI screening in Indianapolis. "We didn't have an MRI here then," she said.
Nor did doctors have today's drugs that are giving hope to so many MS patients. Whittington hasn't yet found a medication that dramatically impacts her particular form of MS, "but I'm hopeful that someday there'll be one," said Whittington, who had to give up her Wal-Mart position following surgery in 2000.
There are still children who see her out and about and yell, "There's the Wal-Mart lady!"
Whittington acknowledges it would be easy to become depressed about her situation, but she and her husband Mike take the emotional high road and focus on the positive.
They say the support group sponsored by the Tri-State Multiple Sclerosis Association has been a source of strength for them. Those meetings have taken place in Evansville, but as of this month Henderson will have its own support group sponsored by the area MS association.
Whittington would like to see more MS families become involved with the association. "They had a program for married couples, and it really helped Mike and me," she said. The couple, who have an adult son, Chris, and a grandson, are also looking forward to an association-sponsored July weekend retreat that will provide fun for entire families and cost about the same as a family movie or restaurant outing.
"I'm so excited about having a support group here," said Whittington, who practices what she preaches and urges MS patients to help each other, learn together, "and never give up!"
Whittington's friend Lori Bumgardner also has MS and admits that she was experiencing depression over the disease that struck her in 1984 when she was only 19.
There were days, she said, "when I just wanted to pull a sheet over my head. I told a neurologist how depressed I was and he said, 'I'm not prescribing medicine for you. You get to a support group!"
Bumgardner, who is also a caregiver for her mother, took his advice.
The meetings have brightened her outlook, she said, and she's glad that the new support group here will be so convenient for her and other MS patients in the Tri-county area.
The group is necessary, she said, to boost morale. "You see some people with MS just give up," said Bumgardner, whose legs are weakened by the disease and require the use of a walker for stability. She's aware of some MS patients who no longer leave their homes.
Bumgardner, who is single, said her MS worsened significantly in 1992. The young woman, who had worked at D&M Family Foods on Clay Street, was in the bathtub on one occasion when the phone rang, and found that she "could barely pick up my feet." The disease, she said, "really hit hard."
Last October a pump was implanted in her abdomen to automatically release a drug to relieve spasticity, and she's seen some difference. "It's helped," she said, and she hopes for continued improvement.
The support group meetings help too, she said. "There are people to
talk to who understand what you're going through. It's important to go."
Copyright © 2004, The E.W. Scripps Co.