All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for May 2003

Hikers pursue the peaks for MS

May 24, 2003
Paul Post
The Saratogian
Saratoga Springs

Eleanor O'Donnell hiked her last mountain about eight years ago, before multiple sclerosis changed her life forever.

Last fall her 40-year-old son, Sean, climbed Mt. Marcy to become an Adirondack 46er, a select group of people who have climbed all 46 Adirondack peaks at least 4,000 feet high.

While enjoying the view, Sean had a vision about how to help his mother while pursuing his love for hiking. The result is "Ellie's Climb for MS," a project he's coordinating in which teams of hikers will climb the Northeast's tallest 115 mountains to raise money for MS patients.

"My mother's goal on her 60th birthday was to climb one of the High Peaks," O'Donnell said. "Her climb that day was just getting out of bed. She really knew something was wrong about two years before her diagnosis."

"She fought through the fatigue and other symptoms, but she knew her body and she knew something was amiss."

Eleanor O'Donnell, now 67, is among the roughly 400,000 Americans afflicted with MS today.

"It doesn't get the attention some diseases do because it's probably not going to kill a person," Sean said. "It just slowly degrades a person's abilities. It is the number one disabler among young people."

Most MS fund-raising is spent on research. O'Donnell's goal is to raise money for practical things to help people who already have the disease. Things such as occupational training and properly fitted wheelchairs, walkers and canes that can make a patient's life easier.

Mrs. O'Donnell said such equipment is just as important to MS patients as modern, high-tech clubs are to a golfer. Tiger Woods couldn't hit a ball nearly as far with an old wooden-shaft driver as he could with today's titanium models. He'd have to exert twice as much energy and run the risk of injury by trying to do more than he's capable of.

Likewise, MS patients will ache less, function better and have more energy if they don't have to struggle with daily chores.

"It isn't bad to use a cane or a wheelchair," Mrs. O'Donnell said. "If you can use the right cane or right assisted device you're going to walk as normally as possible and you won't hurt yourself."

"Our bodies are meant to be good machines. If you use them wrong or push them you can get hurt."

There are 115 Northeast peaks more than 4,000 feet tall, from Maine's Mt. Katahdin to Slide and Hunter mountains in the Catskills.

O'Donnell is trying to organize teams of four to eight hikers to climb as many of these summits as possible, with each team collecting a dollar for every foot of elevation gained. If every mountain was climbed the effort would raise more than $506,000.

"It would not only raise money, but raise understanding for people with MS or other chronic progressive diseases," Mrs. O'Donnell said.

She said Sean has always had big goals, but even this one surprised her.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, you're crazy!' " she said.

There are 48 4,000-foot mountains in both New York and New Hampshire, 14 in Maine and five in Vermont.

They range from Mt. Washington, known for some of the world's worst weather, to relatively easy climbs such as Giant in the Adirondacks. Symbolically, their diversity represents the challenges faced by MS patients every day, Sean O'Donnell said.

"Every now and then, my mom has these amazing stretches when she can get up and walk around the house," he said. "Other days she has to use a walker or stay in the wheelchair."

"You don't know what's coming next. It truly is day-to-day living. Sometimes, just getting breakfast feels like you've climbed a whole mountain range."

Some people might want to help out with "Ellie's Climb" but feel that a 4,000-foot mountain is a bit too strenuous. These people can still get involved by taking a "Walk in the Woods" on designated trails.

O'Donnell is trying to line up business and corporate sponsorships for the event. If it succeeds, it could become a model for similar events held nationwide from The Smokies of Tennessee and North Carolina to

Colorado's Rockies and California's Sierra range. This year's inaugural climb is set for Saturday, Sept. 20, when autumn foliage should be just about peaking.

Sean said his mother empathizes with all MS patients, because she was a physical therapist for 40 years and dealt with such people on a regular basis. "She has a perspective that very few people have," he said. "We want to help these people climb the mountain in their daily lives."

For information, people may call O'Donnell at 587-3132 or visit the Web site:

Copyright © 2003, The Saratogian