Erica McGee was stressed out. It was finals week during her last semester of nursing school, and the Grass Valley mother of two was exhausted. But during a quick trip to the grocery store, she started to experience a sensation that seemed to go beyond the typical symptoms of stress.
“I was at the checkout stand, and suddenly I couldn’t talk,” said McGee. “My right arm went numb, and I had a really bad headache — it was scary.”
She went straight to the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with a neurological headache, even though the symptoms had subsided once she’d arrived.
As the weeks and months passed, McGee began to experience other symptoms, such as falling, weakness, more numbness and a loss of clear vision in one eye. That’s when the more in-depth medical tests began, and — after visits to two specialists — McGee was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, commonly referred to as MS.
“I was crying, and my husband was confused,” she said. “Even though I’m an RN, my understanding of MS meant I would be in a wheelchair — I didn’t know that the severity of the symptoms vary widely.”
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society defines MS as a “chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Symptoms may be mild, such as numbness in the limbs, or severe, such as paralysis or loss of vision. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another.”
Today, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society reports that advances in research are giving new hope to people with the disease.
Experts theorize that multiple sclerosis can occur in a “genetically susceptible individual” due to one or more environmental factors. Although nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord can be impeded, many people with MS continue to lead fulfilling lives.
Nonetheless, when newly diagnosed, McGee found herself struggling with life questions. How would this impact her family? Her job? Her quality of life?
Her doctor at Mercy San Juan Medical Center told her that the Nevada County Multiple Sclerosis Self-Help Support Group had one of the best reputations in Northern California.
“At first I didn’t want to go — I was scared — but then I realized I needed to talk to other people who were going through this,” she said. “Because you look OK, everyday people don’t always understand.”
Once McGee finally went, she got to know the group members, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. She said she discovered they had a wealth of knowledge and helped her understand that her disease could be manageable.
That was two years ago, and 36-year-old McGee has now taken over as the group’s facilitator. She is eager to reach out to people who have been newly diagnosed.
“I know there are people out there who could use our help — many who just found out they have MS — especially those who have young children,” she said. “When you’re first diagnosed, it’s really hard — our group could really help with that. The support — and having access to the newest information — can make a big difference.”
Anthony Rabak, 44, was diagnosed with MS at the age of 31 and has been attending the Nevada County support group for the past seven years.
“I first went to the group to learn as much as I could about the disease,” he said. “I was also curious to see how others are dealing with it. It’s scary when you’re first diagnosed — you wonder if you’re alone. The main benefit is realizing that what you’re experiencing is not individual to you — everyone is experiencing things in common.”
Come and see the faces behind the diagnoses, urges Rabak, and you’ll discover you’re among people who understand.
“Life’s more fulfilling when we offer a hand to those who stumble around us,” he added. “If you feel you don’t need any support right now, join us anyway and provide something positive to those who do. We’ll return the favor when you need it.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4203.