All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for September 2003

Pageant winner learns to live, succeed with MS

West High School graduate Pat Johnson has had the disease for 46 years.

September 20, 2003
Christine Byers
Rockford Register Star

Pat Johnson stood in front of about 20 nursing home patients at the Fairhaven Christian Retirement Center. She was happy to be there, she told them.

Few returned her smile. Some had their eyes closed.

Eyes started to open when Pat said that she, too, knew what it was like to be in a wheelchair, to lose vision and cognitive abilities, and to be in pain. She has lived with multiple sclerosis for 46 years.

Smiles came to their faces when the 68-year-old said that despite her physical hardships, she was crowned Ms. Senior Alabama in April and will travel to Reno, Nev., in November for the Ms. Senior America National Pageant Finals.

“The Ms. Senior Pageant is for those age 60 and over,” said Pat, dressed in a sharp apple-red suit. “Or as they call it, ‘Those who have reached the age of elegance.’”

Pat graduated from West High School in 1953 and is in town to attend her 50th high school class reunion today at the Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Country Club. She stopped at Fairhaven to share her pageant talent — singing.

She and her husband, Jack, live in Foley, Ala., but wouldn’t miss their West High School reunions. Jack graduated with the class of 1948, and attended his reunion last weekend.

“I think I turned some people off at the reunion because I brag about her all the time,” said 73-year-old Jack. “I’m a first-class bragger, but she’s been through a lot medically.”

Pat and Jack met at a Christmas party, and on their third date, Jack told Pat he wanted to marry her. He tucked her engagement ring under a sweetheart rose, and on April 9, 1955, the couple married.

Two years and two children later, on the morning of Sept. 28, 1957, Pat woke up with intense pain in her head and experienced blindness.

“It felt as if a quarter of my brain was being cut out,” Pat said.

The headache lasted for eight weeks, but the doctor visits would last her lifetime. Doctors speculated that the pain could be cancer or a sinus infection. Pat endured countless spinal taps and other tests before she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1966.

By 1968, the couple had five children, four boys and a girl. The family moved to Alabama after Jack was transferred to the Barber-Colman plant in Huntsville.

The disease has affected Pat in different ways throughout her life.

She has numbness in her hands, very little pain sensors in her skin, bladder and cognitive problems as well as a painful reaction to pressure from anything, even a hat, on her head.

A small drop of blood stains Pat’s sash where she unknowingly pricked her finger with a pin. Jack now helps her pin the sash to her suit.

She feels like she is wearing a girdle around her waist because her midsection is numb, too.

The disease “reared its head” the most in 2002. She was hospitalized eight times and was paralyzed from the waist down.

Symptoms subsided by the end of 2002, and, this year, she was crowned Ms. Senior America Baldwin County on Feb. 22. She won the state pageant April 12.

“So many looked at MS like it’s the end of the road, but she’s been an example to me and my children and she’s given hope to other patients,” Jack said.

Pat counsels other MS patients and their families at a hospital near her home. She is the Head of Worship at her church, social secretary for the senior Sunday school group, a member of the United Methodist Women’s Group and a supporter and collector for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society.

Life has picked up a bit since she became Ms. Senior Alabama, and she has had to put some of her volunteer work on hold.

“In the time since Feb. 22, I’ve had the opportunity to sing, speak and shake hands and share and receive from between six to 7,000 persons, and I hope to be able to reflect a small spark from each one of the persons I have met,” Pat said.

Pat plans to sing “I Believe” and already knows the answer to one question that has come up in previous pageant interviews.

“Once, the judges asked me what in my life was the most challenging for me and how did I meet it,” Pat said. “For me, I believe the most challenging moment was when I grew to understand that MS had come and decided to stay and I had the responsibility to learn all I could about the disease and its effects and then to impart that to others.”

Jack and Pat plan to travel to Reno, Nev., on Nov. 3. Miss Senior America 2003 will be crowned Nov. 8.

In Jack’s mind, Pat has already won.

About Ms. Senior America

The Ms. Senior America Pageant, in its 23rd year, honors women who are 60 and older. Contestants display knowledge, experience and resources to help the younger generation take the opportunity to build a better society. Pageant queens visit patients in veterans and children’s hospitals, nursing homes, senior centers and public schools. Winners get a painting by the artist Valentine called “Inner Light,” a sash and crown.

To learn more,visit

Copyright © 2003, Rockford Register Star