Friday, May 2, 2003
By LESA INGRAHAM
The Holland Sentinel
Things were going well for Brenda Irving. The Holland woman had been married six months. She and her new husband, Kevin, were enjoying a vacation.
Then everything changed.
One morning -- while still on vacation -- Irving woke up and couldn't see out of her left eye.
That morning in 1989 is one the 39-year-old Holland resident will never forget.
It took three weeks, going from doctor to doctor, to find out the problem. She was diagnosed with optic neuritis, inflammation of the optic nerve, and later with multiple sclerosis.
Multiple sclerosis, which means "multiple scars," is a disease that affects the central nervous system, specifically the brain and spinal cord, said Louise O'Donnell, a registered nurse and nurse practitioner at the West Michigan Multiple Sclerosis Clinic in Grand Rapids.
In someone with MS, the immune system attacks nerves in the brain and spinal cord, which causes scar tissue. Having scars on these areas can limit the body's abilities. For example, if a scar forms on the part of the brain controlling movement of the left leg, the person may not be able to lift their leg or have the strength in it that they used to.
There is no cure for the disease and its causes are unknown, O'Donnell said.
Living in northern New York state at the time of her diagnosis, Irving didn't have a lot of support.
"I was afraid, like I think a lot of people are when they are first diagnosed. You don't know what to do or what is going to happen," Irving said. "I felt so alone."
So, when she and Kevin moved to Holland six years ago, Irving started a MS self-help group.
"I called the (National Multiple Sclerosis) Society and asked them if there was a group here, they said no. So I wanted to know what someone had to do to get one started," Irving said. Today, the group is 75 members strong and meets regularly.
Group member Marcia Bouwens of Zeeland has been attending the group for five years and says it offers support not available anywhere else.
"We can get together and we all have the same disease, but we are all different. I think we come together for the camaraderie," Bouwens said.
While MS has changed her body -- sometimes affecting her eye sight and speech, causing her to slur her words-- Irving tries to live life to its fullest.
"Yes, I have multiple sclerosis, but multiple sclerosis definitely doesn't have me," Irving said. "You don't die of MS, you die with MS and that is important to remember. You can lead a full life and be happy, you just have to realize that."
MS is usually diagnosed in people between 20 and 50, O'Donnell said. The symptoms vary. For example, vision impairment, similar to Irving's situation, and numbness are common.
"The biggest piece in diagnosing someone is looking for a pattern of symptoms," O'Donnell said.
While there is no cure, treatments are available. For example, there are four different drugs that can work to slow the progression of the disease.
Irving's symptoms come and go. There are times when she can't see and others when her arms and legs are numb. But most MS patients don't have consistent symptoms. A person may be feeling fine in the morning and have intense pain by the afternoon.
To raise money for MS research, Irving will be volunteering with the
Holland/Lakeshore MS Walk on Saturday. Also, she will be working at a rest
stop in Saugatuck for riders during the MS 150 Bike Tour from May 31 to
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