By Sue Book/Sun Journal Staff
From the Florida Keys to Philadelphia's Independence Hall, 71 stops and as many days, Beth Bevenour is walking to make a point.
In Pollocksville Monday and New Bern Tuesday and today, the Key West, Fla., waitress with no particular athletic interest or prowess is walking the 1,350 miles for her sister who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis eight months ago. She started her walk from Key West on March 24.
Though experiencing symptoms and some of the chronic fatigue that often plagues MS victims, Bevenour's sister, Cara Marie Abbate, of Schnecksville, Pa., can still walk. But her health has forced her to take a leave of absence from her job as a mortgage company manager and her health insurance won't pay the $1,000 per month for interferon treatment aimed at slowing the disease's progression.
Bevenour's aim is to heighten awareness of multiple sclerosis, a chronic, potentially debilitating autoimmune disease that most typically strikes at the prime of life, like Abbate's diagnosis at 31.
She's also raising money for research for a cure and payment for her sister's treatment. Thus far, she's banked $45,000 from contributions. She is aiming for $50,000, of which 50 percent goes to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, 30 percent to the National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and 20 percent directly for the aid of Abbate.
Bevenour started her effort with bigger numbers in mind but Sept. 11 and the reality of an individual getting corporate sponsors set in. But seven months later with a crash course in marketing, she's happy to be more than half way through the walk with the money thus far raised.
"I solicited 60 major corporations and worked with 17 local bars in Key West," Bevenour said of her town "with a generous heart," to get the walk under way. Corporate sponsors recognized on her Website -- http://Bevenourswalkforms.org -- provided things such as 25 pairs of walking shoes, clothes, a cell phone, a "camel pak" thermal backpack, and hotels and motels along the way teamed with local MS support groups and organizations to make her short stays in 51 towns thus far pleasant and affordable.
"After acting as my own fund-raiser, publicist, administrator and trainer, the walk itself seems to be the easy part," she said.
Bevenour begins her walking days at 5:30 a.m. and walks until about 1 p.m. to avoid the worst heat. But it's still a trek "walking against the traffic ... facing the heat, wind and road kill," she said. She averages four miles an hour and stops every eight to 10 miles to rest.
Her husband and friends and relatives have driven an RV along the road to provide a place in the shade to rest. The trek has taken her up U.S. 1 to U.S. 17 and will take her up U.S. 13 to her destination.
"This is the greatest adventure of my life to date," Bevenour said. "When I reach the Liberty Bell and see my sister standing there -- I can't even imagine how profound a moment that will be."
The cause of MS remains a mystery though virus, allergy, mercury in dental fillings, stress, overheating or dehydration and assorted other potential causes are theorized as starting the inflammatory reaction that causes the body to attack itself.
The attacks destroy the insulating (myelin) sheath that covers nerve fibers, resulting in damage to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal column), slowing, blocking or misdirecting signals from the brain, much like uninsulated wires touching each other can short or misdirect electrical signals.
MS affects half a million or more Americans, twice as many women as men, and is most often diagnosed between the ages of 20-40, although viral and environmental causes of MS are thought to predispose victims before age 15. Relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis generally begins with a pattern of relapse of symptoms followed by periods of remission that may or may not return a person to previous levels of wellness. Chronic progressive MS cases are characterized by a steady progression of disability with no respite.
Symptoms include chronic fatigue, numbness, unexplained itching, pain and spasticity in the limbs, tremor, sexual side effects, bowel and bladder problems, sensitivity to temperature (especially heat), dizziness, loss of balance, weakness, depression, and problems with thinking, memory and attention.
Until the late 1980s, there were drugs to address some of the disease's symptoms but none to delay the progression or effect a cure. With AIDS research came the interferon drugs that didn't work for AIDS but appeared helpful in the treatment of MS by seeming to slow the progression of the disease.
Usually taken by self-injection, interferon drugs are expensive (Interferon-beta 1a costs $220 per weekly shot) and often cause unpleasant side effects. They are not a cure, and the jury is still out on their effectiveness, though a recent 12-year study of interferon-beta 1b saw disease progression slowed as measured by Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of brain lesions. Many insurance companies will not pay for the treatment.
Forms to make a contribution to Bevenour's fund-raising effort may be obtained at her Website and additional information on MS from www.nmss.org, an organization that sponsors community walks for an MS cure with the mantra "it's not about being athletic -- it's about showing compassion."
"When I think about how this diagnosis will forever alter the lives of my sister and her husband," Bevenour said, "the walk seems a small thing to do to help."