Passing The Torch // My Journey from Therapy to Therapist

As told to Suri Ungar

You would never know anything’s wrong by looking at me. And if I tell you I have multiple sclerosis, your jaw would drop, because you will likely meet me at work, in my physical therapy practice. You read that right: I am a physical therapist. I sat in the therapist’s office, on the other side of the desk, long enough to realize that just as my own physical therapist changed my life, I too wanted to change people’s lives. Without meaning to boast, judging by the distance people travel to see me, I assume that I’m doing a decent job. As one client put it, “Why go to someone five minutes away when you can go an hour away to someone who really knows what he is doing?”

I’m just here to share my story and hopefully inspire and encourage.

Multiple sclerosis ambushed my quiet, happy life when I was 13. One day I could see; the next day my sight deteriorated. The doctors were baffled. I was suffering from blurred vision and poor balance, but they didn’t know what was wrong. Eventually, a leading neurologist at Maimonides Hospital recognized my symptoms as multiple sclerosis.

I was just a kid, so the burden—and terror—of this shocking diagnosis lay on my parents. My mother was absolutely petrified, as any parent would feel, but she put aside her fears, put on a brave face and constantly assured me that the doctors would make me better. It was her positive attitude that got me through that and future medical crises.

The year was 1997. Scientific information on the subject was sparse as the disease was uncommon, both for my gender—it is more than twice as common in women—and even more so for my tender age. The onset of symptoms is typically between ages 20 and 50, but they have also surfaced in children as young as five. On the flip side, I have met people who first learned they had MS at 60, when they developed their first symptoms.

What happens with MS is that the immune system attacks the layer that surrounds and protects the nerves, meaning that messages traveling along the nerves become slowed or disrupted. Exactly what causes that to happen is unclear, but scientists think it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. MS is usually something that one is born with, but one isn’t aware of its existence until the symptoms show. So until 13, I was living my life blithely unaware.

The disease comes in all shapes and sizes. I was fortunate to have been diagnosed with the mildest form, called relapsing-remitting MS, which is also the most common. People with this form have temporary episodes called relapses, flare-ups or exacerbations, when new symptoms appear. I had my first flare-up at 13 and then there was a seven-year hiatus until 20, when it ambushed me again—in a big way.

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