Health is an item that triathletes generally possess. Fit and concerned about physical and mental well-being, multi-sport athletes strive for the acme of a healthy lifestyle. When injury sidelines us, or a bout of illness catches us by surprise, we are temporarily reminded of the gift that health can be.
But not everyone is as lucky. No matter how diligent one is in seeking out health, external forces may turn it into an elusive goal. Multiple sclerosis is a disease that affects individuals worldwide. MS attacks the body at the heart of its control center–the central nervous system. For reasons that are still not completely understood, the body’s autoimmune system turns against itself and destroys the myelin sheath, or insulating material that is wrapped around nerve fibers. As the National MS Society describes it, “Without myelin, signals transmitted through the central nervous system are slowed, garbled, or blocked and symptoms develop.”
Those symptoms often start with numbness in the limbs or paralysis. The reasons for the onset of the disease are still under investigation. Current research is focusing on various immunologic, environmental, viral, and genetic factors that may play a role in triggering the disease. Individuals are often diagnosed between the ages of twenty and forty, with lifelong effects.
“It’s like a death without a death.” This is how my mother described the disease that her sister, and my aunt, was diagnosed with seven years ago at the age of 41. A successful attorney with the federal government, my aunt had barely begun navigating her lifelong goal of service in her chosen field. And as a mother with three kids at home, she looked forward to watching them grow, graduate, and move on in their lives.
MS quickly and devastatingly brought those aspects of life to an end. In the first few years after her diagnosis, she experienced the paralysis and loss of muscle function common to the disease. However, MS soon began attacking the myellin in her brain, which abruptly affected her mental abilities. Forgetful at first, the seriousness grew to the point where she could no longer function in her line of work. As a sharp intellectual, this loss was not easy to deal with, to say the least. Imagine a successful Ironman triathlete cut down in her prime, no longer possessing the arms to swim, the legs to bike and run, nor the lungs and circulatory system to power it all, unable to ever again use the gifts she was born with.
Successful comebacks are inspiring–like Lance Armstrong returning from cancer to win three Tours de France and counting, Karen Smyers overcoming thyroid cancer to race again at Ironman… Unfortunately, the fighter often loses the battle. And MS can be a ruthless opponent.
The last five years of my aunt’s life have been a downward spiral. This past April 4 marked her 48th birthday and the first year of life in an Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home, which provides her with the 24-hour care that she requires. She no longer recognizes her children and her husband’s face is a fuzzy shadow of someone vaguely important in what remains of her memory. “It’s like a death without a death.”
Research is underway to explore the etiology of MS and develop ways to fight it. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society – “dedicated to ending the devastating effects of multiple sclerosis” – is a leader in the fight. And race director Paul Karlsson has dedicated the proceeds of the Boulder Peak Triathlon to aiding the work of the National MS Society.
Karlsson’s race is one way those of us with the gift of health can celebrate it and make a difference for those who struggle for it on a daily basis.
Thanks to Paul, the Boulder Peak Triathlon, and its supporters! On behalf of my aunt, Susan Knight, and her family, your commitment in the fight against MS is truly appreciated, and your race will always be remembered as a celebration of her life and an annual celebration of health for those of us who are lucky enough to possess the gift.