Summer of 2007, my 21 year-old daughter Kristen eagerly awaited starting her senior year of college. She was also very excited that her younger sister Alison was about to join her as a freshman at the University of Georgia. We had planned for the family to enjoy a few days together during Alison’s orientation as our daughters began the year together at the same school my wife Shelley and I had attended, and where we met over 25 years earlier. Things didn’t work out that week as planned.
The morning Alison and Shelley started orientation, Kristen and I were meeting with her neurologist. He told us of Kristen’s diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. We were not familiar with the details of MS, and Kristen’s only vision of MS was of the father of a college friend of hers who has MS and is a quadriplegic. The diagnosis of MS is stunning for anyone and particularly stunning for a 21 year-old to now be faced with the uncertainties of MS. I do not remember much about that day, but two details I do remember clearly. I remember sitting and listening to the doctor as I watched Kristen. She was amazing! Despite just receiving this news she sat there listening attentively – calm and composed – asking questions and discussing the disease, treatment options, and her prognosis.
I also remember the ride home from doctor’s office. We rode home pretty much in silence. I held her hand and she stared out the passenger window into the clouds. As we were almost home I squeezed her hand and said “I love you”. She turned and looked at me with those big brown eyes full of water and she tried to force a little smile.
Kristen has always enjoyed athletics despite not being the strongest athlete, and I now realize that was preparing her for a much bigger battle that she would face. Kristen swam competitively for many years. As her sister and friends were receiving ribbons and medals, Kristen usually finished towards the back of the pack. Many others would have gotten discouraged and quit, but not Kristen. The coaches stressed that each swimmer should work their hardest to learn and improve and the race was against the clock to improve your personal time. Kristen accepted this challenge and pushed herself to be the best swimmer she could be. She would check her time and get so excited if she had improved and if not she would just continue to work harder. She would also be the biggest cheerleader there for her sister and friends. I could not have been more proud of her for her strong will, determination, and attitude. She has used the same discipline and qualities in her fight against MS.
In the 3 years since her diagnosis Kristen is doing very well. But as MS patients and families know even doing well means enduring a lot. She battles fatigue, some cognitive problems, and spasms associated with MS. She adjusts to constantly changing medications, shots, and infusions. Despite all of this she keeps a smile on her face, a positive outlook, and an excitement for life that has always characterized her personality. Most people other than close friends are not aware of her condition or what she deals with every day. Kristen does not hide her MS, but she is determined to not let it define her life. In fact she does not wear a MS bracelet but rather wears a blue Katie’s Courage bracelet in honor and memory of a close childhood friend that passed away from complications from viral encephalitis. Kristen helped in the efforts to build Katie’s Pool - an adaptive aquatics swimming pool in Augusta at the Family Y that serves many people and groups including MS patients from the Medical College of Georgia. Kristen has also been the inspiration for a team the last three years for Walk MS - Athens. Team Kristen has had the largest number of walkers each year and has raised over $10,000 towards the fight against MS.
Kristen knows she will have to fight MS until a cure is found. She is very proactive in fighting this terrible disease and keeps herself educated on the disease, treatments, and medication. During this time though, she leads a normal and productive life. She is a middle school teacher and I believe her experiences with MS have given her a unique perspective to help her students as she teaches classes for those students needing special help in academics. She also hosts a weekly Bible study at her house where she is able to share her experiences and also learn from the experiences of others. Kristen refuses to let MS curb her wonderful enthusiasm for life and although she may not have the most physical strength, she is one of the strongest people I know and she has the heart of a champion.