November 15, 2003
Bangor Daily News
Blue skies over Las Vegas is all that Janice Morris has been talking about for weeks.
It's not surprising.
On Monday, the day she turns 50, Morris will make her first-ever sky dive in Nevada.
One of the morning waitresses at the White House Restaurant, Morris admits she is a grown-up daredevil drawn to high-speed thrills.
But what is pulling Morris west, and up to 17,000 feet, is actually more sobering.
Since July, the Jonesboro woman has acknowledged, even shared with others beyond her family, that she has multiple sclerosis. Morris suspects she has had MS for at least four years, perhaps longer.
She knows quite a bit today about the disease that randomly attacks the central nervous system, wearing away a person's control over the body.
And that's why she is heading west for the sky dive.
"I want to do things like this before I can't do these things anymore" is what she has been telling customers at the White House, the Route 1 fixture where she has worked as a waitress for most of the last 38 years.
For much of the last four years, she dismissed any numbness she felt in her legs as residual effects of being hit by a car more than 20 years ago.
For much of the last four months, she has been telling everyone she encounters that she has MS and, darn it, nothing is going to stop her from doing anything.
The process of first being honest with herself about the disease, then telling family and friends, has been difficult for the usually effervescent woman who is never short on conversation.
"I'm the Energizer bunny," she said of her four-mornings-a-week schedule, when she is in the kitchen by 4:30 a.m. "How could I have MS? I keep going all the time."
But going public, telling even those she meets as she serves coffee or eggs, has been healing. She isn't finished.
Starting in January, Morris is heading a support group for other people in Washington County who are living with MS.
Down East Community Hospital in Machias is lending the use of its cafeteria for the first meeting, at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 26.
Fifty other people in Washington County are known to the Bangor office of the MS Society of Maine to be living with the disease, according to K Sawyer, the group's program coordinator for six counties, including Washington.
But there are 580 people in Washington County who have asked to be included on the MS Society's mailing list, Sawyer said. That's evidence that the disease affects many beyond those afflicted with it - spouses, parents, family, friends, employers, co-workers.
The Down East group will be open to all those with an interest in MS, whether they have the disease or know someone who lives with it.
"Several support groups we have in Maine have been in direct response to someone being diagnosed and wanting to learn more about the disease," Sawyer said. "They want to know how others manage it and not feel so isolated."
Morris has been traveling to Ellsworth or Bangor in search of support groups. The Ellsworth group, which started in 2001, has drawn as few as four to a meeting, and as many as 22 at once.
Sawyer said the MS Society estimates that for each person who has MS, another six or seven people close to them also are affected.
Morris denied that she was living with MS for three years after one doctor suggested that she follow up with a specialist.
The restaurant customers would comment on her limping and ask if her back was feeling better, she said. Always she passed off her physical problems as only back pain.
She realized something really was amiss when she had trouble keeping up with her grandson, 3-year-old Colton Morris of Jonesboro.
A year ago this month, after having the disease confirmed, she left for two weeks in New Orleans - a place where she could ponder her future.
It was the first Thanksgiving when she wasn't at her mother's dinner table in Columbia.
She returned with a resolve to tell her family: She had not shared her suspicions even with Ken, her husband of 30 years.
But Christmas passed and still she kept her secret. A second trip to New Orleans in January had to happen before she gathered the strength to let others know back home.
Once her family learned, they were more caring than Morris could have imagined, she said.
Only after many drives alone last summer to Gardner Lake in Whiting did she realize there was a reason.
"After I finally faced it, I could feel relief," she said. "It was like, OK, girl, now go for it and see what you're going to do about this."
She made contact with the MS Society. And she decided to start a support group Down East, because no one else had done that yet.
She intends to show the video of her sky dive to the first group that gathers in January, when she will share her story in hopes that others will feel more comfortable living with MS.
Most people are diagnosed with MS between the ages of 15 and 50, according to the MS Society's Web site. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be forecast.
Sawyer likes Morris' spirit.
"Janice is not just jumping out of a plane because she is 50 years old,"
Sawyer said. "She is 50 years old with MS, and she is still celebrating
Copyright © 2003, Bangor Daily News