My MS Journey

In 2011 I watched Lew Hollander, the oldest man to ever finish Ironman Kona, cross the finish line in 16:45:55. I remember saying to myself, I want to be like that guy, he was in his 80’s and still competing in Ironman events.

I’ve finished two Ironman races, Louisville in 2011 and Boulder in 2014. Before that I finished eight 70.3 races and a bunch of Olympic and sprint distance races. My first triathlon was a sprint tri in 1988. While I have finished respectably in all the races, I am clearly a middle of the pack competitor.

Of the two Ironman races my finish in Louisville was the best with a time of 14:20:59. That was my first Ironman and all I wanted to do was finish, it didn’t matter what my time was. I was overjoyed when I crossed the finish line and heard Mike Reilly say “Jack Fisher you are an Ironman”.

I struggled in Boulder in 2014. Fortunately I finished before the cutoff but it wasn’t a race I want to hold up as good. I hadn’t trained well, the course was tough and the altitude took its toll on this Alabama guy. But still I was glad to have finished my second race.

Ready to sign up for my next race, my wife Amy and I went to IM Chattanooga to volunteer and then register for 2015 the morning after the race. Chattanooga is just a few hours from my hometown and it benefits the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. Since my son has Crohn’s it is a perfect race for me to do in 2015.

My excitement about Chattanooga drove me to train through the winter which I normally don’t do. On a run in early November I noticed I was having a hard time running in a straight line the first few hundred yards. Then I began dragging my left foot and I noticed I was getting tired easily.

Then one night in early December I woke up to something I will never forget. I had what felt like a surge of electricity run through my body. It was so bad I had to check our electric blanket the next morning for a short. It was as if I had been hit by a taser.

The fatigue continued through the Christmas holidays so I finally decided to go see our family doctor. He did a few quick tests, made me squeeze his hand and then said he wanted me to get my blood checked. His hope was I had a vitamin imbalance and if that was true it wouldn’t be hard to correct.

Later that week my blood tests came back normal, no problem with my iron or any other vitamins. With that my doctor decided to send me to a neurologist to run a few more tests.

Amy and I went together to this appointment. He ran a few basic motor skill type tests which reminded me of what a drunk driver might do. I didn’t do very well. He hit my knee with a rubber mallet and asked me how my legs were feeling. I told him I was having a hard to with spasms and stiffness in my lower legs. At that point the neurologist decided to send me for a magnetic resonance imaging, also known as an MRI.

A week or so later, in late January 2015, I went to the MRI center for them to run a scan of my brain and spinal cord. The whole procedure took about 45 minutes and was painless. I had an appointment for February 10 to go back to my neurologist and find out the results of the MRI. That day couldn’t come quick enough.

The day of my appointment finally arrived and Amy and I went back to the neurologist to get the results of the MRI. I was convinced it was a pinched nerve. Apparently that is a self diagnosis many runners and triathletes apply when they are having these kind of symptoms.

I remember waiting in an exam room for the doctor and there were several pamphlets on the counter about multiple sclerosis. After skimming through them and reading of how debilitating MS can be, I remember thinking I’m glad I don’t have that disease.

Finally the doctor came in to the exam room and asked us to follow him into his office. He pulled up the MRI on his computer and first showed us the scan of my brain. He pointed out a few areas that were white on the scan and he said these areas are lesions. Then he pulled up the scan of my spinal cord running through my neck and this is where he got serious. He said, see this large white area, those are all lesions that concern me. These all indicate that you have multiple sclerosis and it appears your MS is very aggressive.

I sat there stunned for what seemed like a long time. The doctor then starting describing MS and how it is an autoimmune disease that attacks the myelin sheath that covers the central nervous system. The body’s response to this attack includes weakness of one or more extremities, paralysis of one or more extremities, tremor of one or more extremities, muscle spasticity (uncontrollable spasm of muscle groups), movement dysfunction, numbness, tingling, pain, loss of vision, loss or coordination and balance, incontinence, loss of memory or judgment and fatigue.

As he was describing all this my first thoughts were can I still do triathlons and are my Ironman days over. So, naturally my first question was can I still train? His response was a confident “no” with the strong suggestion I only do water aerobics so as not to raise my body temperature which exacerbates MS symptoms.

As we were getting ready to leave his office the doctor recommended we get a second opinion and he gave us the name of a neurologist in Birmingham. Then he said, “can I pray for you?”. This was the best thing I had heard for months.

On the way home in the car the conversation quickly turned to who do we tell and how do we tell them. Then we talked about how our lives will change and I remember it being pretty extreme but based on what we had heard the doctor say.

I made an appointment with the neurologist in Birmingham and was looking forward to hearing her thoughts. We have a friend with MS who goes to this same neurologist and spoke very highly of her. She said that both she and her husband, also a neurologist, were runners and ran everything from short distances to marathons. Already I was encouraged.

The day of the appointment arrived. We were sitting in the exam room and in walked the doctor wearing orange Converse, I already liked her. She said that based on her 30 years of working with MS she felt like I had multiple sclerosis for some time but I was just now showing symptoms. She didn’t feel like it was aggressive just undiagnosed and any symptoms I might have been experiencing were minor until now.

She recommended I go on a once a month disease modifying drug called Tysabri as soon as possible. She also wanted me to establish a baseline of my cognitive and physical abilities. We set up the necessary appointments and left to drive home feeling very encouraged.

Fast forward to now. I have had two Tysabri infusions and did not experience any side effects. My symptoms have not gotten any worse since January and I’m not experiencing any new symptoms. Best of all I am two months in to my training plan for Ironman Chattanooga on September 27.

This brings me to the why behind this blog. A few days after my diagnosis the verse of the day on the online Bible YouVersion was 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 and this part of the scripture really impacted me, “He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.”

My hope is my journey with MS will encourage others who also have the disease and even some who don’t. We all face challenges and hard times but that is when we learn and grow the most. Since being diagnosed I have been encouraged and prayed for by so many people both with and without MS.

I clearly understand that God has a plan for my life and it includes living with multiple sclerosis. Looking back it is easy to see God has been walking beside me my whole life and he will continue as we deal with MS.

Stay tuned to this blog as I talk about my training for Ironman Chattanooga and even more races in the future.

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