Thursday, September 4, 2003
By David Brusie / Staff Writer
When incoming Acton-Boxborough senior Anna Peabody learned two years ago she had multiple sclerosis, she was more than a bit surprised. She has turned her disease, however, into both a manageable way of life and a motivation to help future generations.
"I was playing basketball one day, and I thought I had dislocated my shoulder, because my hand went numb," said Peabody.
Off she and her parents went to a neurologist, who suggested getting an MRI done at Emerson Hospital. Those scans showed bright spots on her brain, which turned out to be the beginning stages of the disease.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system and causes a person's immune system to incorrectly attack healthy tissue.
According to the Multiple Sclerosis Society, 37 people in Acton and nine in Boxborough have the disease (who have reported to the local MSS chapter). The disease affects 2 million worldwide and 400,000 in the United States. It is most common among people between the ages of 20 and 40. Peabody will soon turn 18.
"I felt very isolated, and I started to kind of reach out and see if I could find people more along the lines of people my age," said Peabody.
In speaking to different organizations, she and her family started talking to Art Millor of the Boston Cure Project, which raises money to determine the causes of - and ultimately the cure for - multiple sclerosis. In 2001, Anna and her father spoke with Millor, the first stages in developing the Anna Peabody Fund, which raises money for the Boston Cure Project. The fund was formally established about a year ago.
The main goal of the Boston Cure project is development of a four-phase "cure map," to better clarify the five root causes for the disease. The Anna Peabody Fund is also working to help the project develop a blood and tissue bank, which will provide an informational database with high-quality samples.
Peabody and her parents are also developing a documentary and informational DVD titled "Finding Our Way - A Guide for Newly Diagnosed Families With MS." The film, said Peabody, will profile six individuals and their families who have lived with pediatric MS and will feature interviews with neurologists, researchers, nurses, therapists, parents and teens.
Peabody said that if she had a similar resource when she was diagnosed, she would have adjusted much better than she did.
"When it works out, I think it will be really, really helpful. When I was diagnosed, I had a million questions ... There were too many what-ifs, and this will hopefully be able to answer some of those questions," she said.
She also hopes her story can help other young people with the disease. Peabody, after all, lives a relatively normal teenage life: she hangs out with her friends, goes to school and plans to attend college after graduating next spring.
"Being able to have this as a roadblock, cope with it, and flourish with the disease on the sidelines. MS is a very, very small part of my life, and I like it that way ... I don't live like a sick person. I'm not a sick person. I have a disease, but I'm not sick," she said.
Peabody has to watch what she eats and exercise regularly, both of which she said are things she "should do anyway to be a healthy human being."
Getting to this relatively relaxed point, however, hasn't been easy. Besides the initial emotional adjustment of the diagnosis, Peabody had a tough time starting her sophomore year the following autumn.
"The first summer of my diagnosis, I did not live like I had MS. I had behaved like a normal 16-year-old girl would behave," she said. This included not eating healthy food and not getting enough exercise.
She missed almost three months of school the following fall. In her three years at A-B so far, she has missed 11 months of school, requiring her to do summer schoolwork each year. Still, she said she hasn't minded that much, and thanks the high school for their understanding.
While she admits that multiple sclerosis has changed her life, she said she has changed for the better in many ways. And though the Anna Peabody Fund and the Boston Cure Project have become very important to her, dwelling on the negative effects of the disease isn't of much interest to her.
Since being diagnosed, Peadbody said, "I grew up. It could be so much worse. I'll figure out a way to deal with it the best I can, and see where it takes me."
To contribute to the Anna Peabody Fund, checks made payable to the fund should be sent to: The Boston Cure Project, 13 Belton St., Arlington, MA, 02474.
For more information, visit http://www.annapeabody.org
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