All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for May 2004

Pillager woman defies MS victim stereotypes

Friday, May 21, 2004
Jodie Tweed
Brainerd Dispatch

People often tell Michelle Ruhl of Pillager that she doesn't look like someone who has multiple sclerosis.
"Well, what are we supposed to look like?" Ruhl always responds with a smile.

Ruhl, in fact, is a busy woman who isn't letting her MS diagnosis two years ago slow her down, even though she's affected by MS every day.

The Pillager mother of three is a preschool teacher at Pillager Area Family Resource Center and also works at the Pillager Food Shelf and the Fun Stop after school program, in addition to planning community events for the MN ENABL program.

About three years ago Ruhl began experiencing muscle spasms and numbness in her legs and feet which started creeping into her arms. Her arms and legs began feeling weighted. She grew increasingly fatigued to the point where she almost couldn't think at the end of her work day.

"I'd come home and just drop," said Ruhl. "That's what I had left."

A local physician sent her to a Twin Cities neurologist who believed she had multiple sclerosis. An MRI confirmed she had lesions on her brain. Multiple sclerosis, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, is a chronic, often disabling disease that affects the central nervous system. It strikes people between ages 20-50. Symptoms can range from numbness in the limbs to paralysis or loss of vision. Since the disease varies from person to person, the progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS can't be predicted.

She was officially diagnosed with MS more than two years ago but knows she experienced symptoms for at least five years before she was diagnosed.

Ruhl said she went through the initial stages of grief in learning she has this chronic disease, knowing that the possibility exists she may some day need a wheelchair. It took her awhile to feel positive about life and about her future. She was afraid to do things that could exacerbate her symptoms.

She could tell the MS was growing worse. On shopping trips to Brainerd she would only have enough energy to go to the grocery store or a large retail store, not both in the same day.

But then Ruhl got fed up with the disease. She made the decision to fight back.

Last fall she decided she would enter the 50-mile MS Challenge Walk in the Twin Cities, a three-day walk that raises funds for the Minnesota Chapter of the National MS Society for medical research and programs for those suffering with MS. Participants walk 20 miles the first two days of the walk and 10 miles the third day. She decided she would need to spend nearly a year training for the event, which will be Sept. 18-20. Walkers must raise a minimum of $1,500 in donations in order to participate.

Even though Ruhl could barely make it through two large stores without feeling exhausted, she decided to go for it.

"I thought it was something I would never do before I had MS and this is something I can do to show MS that I can do this," Ruhl explained. "I'm not going to say I can't do it until I try."

Ruhl joined Slim and Tone in Pillager last November. Owners Bruce and Kathy Martin helped design a training regimen for her that would build her muscles weakened because of MS.

She has remained dedicated to her goal and the results have been incredible. She has lost weight and gained more energy. She works out every other day at Slim and Tone and now walks four miles every day. She feels better and she's sleeping better, too.

When Ruhl's husband Mike saw how dedicated his wife was toward her goal of walking in the 50-mile MS Challenge Walk he decided to volunteer for the walk as a crew member.

The Martins were so impressed by Ruhl's dedication to the cause that Slim and Tone is now sponsoring a 5K walk/run June 5 in Pillager to help raise money for Ruhl so she can participate in the 50-mile Challenge Walk.

"It brought tears to my eyes," said Ruhl, of the Martins' offer. "It's really cool to have that much support. People in little towns stick together."

Ruhl has cut back her hours as a preschool teacher in order to save energy to spend with her children, Amanda, 13; Tess, 11; and Nick, 8. Tess has told her mom that she wants to be a teacher and in her spare time find a cure for MS.

Ruhl experiences MS symptoms every day and is learning to adjust. For example, the energetic preschoolers she teaches have learned that they can't sit on her legs when they're down on the floor together because her legs grow numb.

"It's there every day and I deal with it," said Ruhl. "Sometimes I'm grateful for it because it makes me appreciate my life. I try not to think about the bad part of it, the 'what ifs.' I did that for a year and it drove everybody crazy."

Ruhl has been a preschool teacher for seven years. She said her preschoolers have helped teach her what is important in life. They're always there with a smile and a hug, she said.

So far Ruhl has raised about $500 toward her $1,500 minimum needed to walk in the 50-mile MS Challenge Walk Sept. 18-20. Those who wish to sponsor Ruhl in the 50-mile walk may log on to the MS Society Web site at and send a donation in her name. She has a participant Web page at that site for the walk.

Copyright © 2004, Brainerd Dispatch