Nola Foulston says she plans to run for a fourth term as Sedgwick County district attorney, focusing on children's issues.
By Robert Short
The Wichita Eagle
Five months ago, doctors told Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston she has multiple sclerosis.
Today, Foulston, 48, will tell you that she hasn't felt this good in years.
While Foulston has been reluctant to talk publicly about her diagnosis until now, she agreed to discuss it in the context of her plans to run for a fourth term in 2000.
Foulston acknowledges that MS has prompted profound changes in her life, but she is proud of her record as district attorney and confident of her ability to be the county's top prosecutor for four more years.
"If I felt my MS affected my ability to do my job, I think it would be in the community's best interest for me not to run again," she said. "The fact is, I am working my butt off to be healthy. I have the drive to do it."
Foulston says she will continue to make children's issues a priority _ her office set records this year for the number of children taken from abusive and neglectful homes _ and work with a national organization of district attorneys that lobbies Congress on crime issues.
Rather than let it slow her down professionally or politically, Foulston's diagnosis has energized her, she says. While the neurological disorder is often progressive and even crippling in some people, Foulston's is in an early stage that comes and goes.
In a way, the diagnosis is a relief, she says. It explained decades of mysterious medical ailments, most often numbness and fatigue, and has prompted a dramatic lifestyle change for the better. Foulston says she eats better, weighs less and exercises more.
"It is not going to kill me; it is going to make life more challenging."
Since Foulston was in her 20s, she has suffered unpredictable episodes of sometimes debilitating physical ailments, she says.
The symptoms include fatigue, headache and paralysis on her right side.
Doctors could only guess at the causes. Over the years, Foulston says, she has been tested for everything from meningitis to thyroid problems to leukemia.
Once while on a trip to Italy when she was 27, numbness affected her ability to walk.
"They thought I may have had a stroke," she said. "I was limping around on my right leg."
In the early '80s, after her marriage to Steve Foulston, the same symptoms prompted a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. There were more tests and more speculation but no real answers. Multiple sclerosis was proposed but not confirmed, she says.
And Foulston worried her immune system was compromised.
"If I would get a cold, I would get a cold worse than anyone else," she said. "If I get the flu, I can't get over it."
Journey to a diagnosis
In January 1998, Foulston began having headaches while on vacation with her family. The pain followed her back to Wichita and back to work. Then numbness set in, affecting the right half of her face.
Her neighbor, a cardiologist, suggested an MRI _ an advanced test that uses electromagnetic waves to map the inside of the body.
In February, doctors turned up a clue. They discovered a pea-sized lesion on her brain. Lesions are a sign of multiple sclerosis, but one is not enough for a diagnosis.
But the discovery did nothing to halt Foulston's facial numbness, which was beginning to affect her vision and swallowing.
"I told the dentist he could drill on my teeth, and I wouldn't feel it," she said.
Not until May 1999, after tests revealed more lesions, were doctors ready to make a firm diagnosis. They told Foulston she was in the early stages of MS. While there is no cure, doctors told her it was treatable.
"I said, 'Thank God someone has figured this out,' " she said. "I thought I was going crazy."
Foulston immediately began treatment, including giving herself Interferon shots.
She alternates legs, injecting the medication early Saturday evenings so she is asleep when the side effects -- body aches, fatigue and headaches that can last more than a day -- start.
Because of the side effects, Foulston has shifted her office schedule to Tuesday through Friday and works longer hours.
"If there is work to do on Monday, then I come in," she said.
The Interferon offers her a good chance of stopping the progression of the disease, she says.
At the same time, she changed her diet, started exercising more and allowed more hours for sleep. Horseback riding, long a hobby, is now physical therapy.
Bottled water and hand weights are a fixture in her office. At home, she works out on a treadmill and weight bench several days a week. She avoids caffeine and tries to limit eating out.
"I am doing the things I am supposed to do," she said. "I am in better shape now than I've ever been.
"I still attend homicide scenes in the middle of the night, and this has not stopped me from doing so.
"I am not going to let it get me."
No poster child
Foulston says she accepts that she is more vulnerable to illness and injury than a person who does not have MS. But she doesn't want pity or to portray herself as a "poster child" for the disorder.
"I think I have a greater empathy for people with a chronic disease," she said. "But there are so many people who are so much worse off than I am."
Instead, she is focused on work. Her colleagues in the law enforcement community have little doubt about her abilities.
"Nola has always had a very high energy level," said U.S. Attorney Jackie Williams. "She can handle, and will handle, and does handle her MS situation.
"I don't think anyone has to be worried about Nola having MS and that affecting her performance."
Wichita Police Chief Mike Watson says he has not seen a letdown in the district attorney's office and does not expect one.
"When there are serious crimes that occur out there, she is not sitting in the office or hiding or something," he said. "You will see her on the crime scene. She is not going to let it affect her job."
For the November 2000 election, Foulston says her top issue will be children and violent crime.
She believes children who witness violence in the home often become abusers because they see violence as normal. That also carries over into school, where children fear being victims of other students, she said.
"The criminal justice system needs someone with experience right now."
Multiple sclerosis facts
Multiple sclerosis is a neurological disorder that causes a wide range of symptoms - including weakness, fatigue, numbness, vision loss, unsteady gait, and partial and complete paralysis - in the 300,000 Americans with the disease.
MS involves inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and a loss of the protective sheaths that protect nerve fibers. This inflammation can result in lesions forming on the brain and spinal cord. n The average age of diagnosis is 30, but it typically starts between the ages of 15 and 50. Women are affected twice as often as men.
Early symptoms include abrupt but often temporary numbness and weakness. Attacks occur at irregular intervals and might last days or weeks.
More than half of the people diagnosed with MS eventually develop a more progressive form of the disease.
MS is not considered life-threatening, although complications associated with the disease, such as pneumonia or infection, can lead to premature death.
The cause of MS is unknown, but a person might have a genetic predisposition to developing it.
MS cannot be prevented or cured, but it can be treated with drugs that ease or shorten attacks.
Source: The American Academy of Neurology