Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Eye Caramba!

Stuck on the bike path behind a logjam of cute kids on training wheels, I had to exercise patience and wait for Laura. Not because she was behind me, oh no, I was right on her tail. No, it was because I had to wait for her to do her spot-on impersonation of ER docs treating a heart attack victim with an AED. I geared down to prepare to pass as she charged up the virtual paddles.

“Clear!”

That was my signal. We moved in tandem into the opposing bike lane and stomped on it, tucking back into our lane after we passed mom and dad. I’m sure they had no idea one of the cyclists who just rode by was legally blind at the time.
Oh, the joys of MS. People are always taken aback when I detail all the ways multiple sclerosis can F with your body. For someone living with the disease, none of it is truly a surprise. But I like to say that when optic neuritis strikes, you never see it coming (sorry, sorry, terrible pun).
Eyesight issues affect about half of those with MS at least once—blurry vision, blindness, double vision, uncontrolled eye movements, graying of vision, you name it—and visual problems are often the first symptom of the disease (I had lightning flashes in the corners of my eyes). Thankfully, symptoms often recede partly or fully over time, but sadly not always. Although my vision is mostly 20/20 these days, for the first several years of my MS journey that certainly wasn’t the case.
When my eyes first started giving me fits, it felt like someone had mucked with the contrast and color on the TV of life. Everything was muted, flat, off. I so wanted to whack the side of planet Earth to fix the picture. My eye doc was frustrated, too, as the best he could correct my eyesight was to 20/40, right on the cusp of hanging up the keys to the car. But it wasn’t just the blurriness. Colors were mostly gone. Reds and greens became grays, so I was never 100 percent sure whether to go or stop at streetlights. Um, kind of a problem.
At least I could still sorta see. That wasn’t true on the bike trail, though, as exercising on warm days overheated my body, thoroughly cooking my vision. How bad was it? I only became aware of oncoming cyclists at the precise moment they were passing me by. That meant devising creative strategies to keep riding, one of which was the utilization of a seeing-eye-wife, er Laura. After I warmed up, she was not much more than a blob on the trail (a cute blob, for the record), necessitating me following her verbal commands in an unlikely bike ballet. But it worked.

Now I’m not advocating hopping on your bicycle when you are imitating Ray Charles (or god forbid get behind the wheel of a car), but I am advocating that you don’t turn a blind eye (ahem) to living the best life possible when confronting vision issues brought on by MS. Goodness, if I had taken that approach I’d have spent months in bed with the sheets pulled over my head. And since I enjoy most types of beans—except for canned limas, of course—that may have been catastrophic. Egad, just the thought.
You might be reading this blog with type the size of skyscrapers. You may be listening to it as a computerized audio translation. Perhaps someone is reading this aloud to you wondering quietly to herself who the heck is this optimistic Dave guy who overindulges in beans. The point is, you care enough not to let uncooperative eyesight rule your life. You work around it. You deal with it. You go on. We all have to go on.
Multiple sclerosis will always challenge us in expected and unexpected ways. Rise to the occasion and meet those challenges with a ferocious determination, and tell our shared disease, in the words of Mr. Charles, to hit the road, Jack. (Clarification: don’t actually hit said road as asphalt will do a number on your kneecaps.)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Very Public Thank You

Bear with me, please. As the calendar flips to 2017, I need to publicly thank a few folks. Okay, more than few folks. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just over a decade ago, I’ve had help from hundreds, more like thousands of people. Every day I can point to individuals who have made my life just a little bit easier with this disease. Now I know where I am going to end my kudos—with my caregiver and life partner, Laura. But where the hell do I start? Why not at the beginning….

So on the night my right side went numb, thank you to the ER doc for not tip-toeing around the possibility that it might be MS. And to all the neurologists and specialists and doctors and EMTs and nurses and therapists and trial coordinators since then who have supported me figuratively and, that one time, literally, when I passed out taking my first shot

My family. Karen is at left, Kathryn at right.
Thank you to my sister Karen for all of her physical therapy work, my sister Kathryn for her unwavering support, and my sister-in-law Eve who is running half marathons in every state of the union including Washington D.C. (51 in all!) to raise money for MS. Unbelievable. And thank you to my parents who back me at every turn.

Thank you to all the people who have opened doors for me over the years. And to all the people who didn’t just grab the door I was already opening because they could see that I was using it for support and that if it were to swing wide open suddenly—picture a rodeo clown throwing open the gates of a pen holding an ornery bull—the gesture of kindness would have certainly pulled me along, flinging me asunder and resulting, undoubtedly, in more thanks to EMTs. I mean, I love those guys, but I’ve seen enough of those heroes.

Thank you to all of the kind and generous members of ActiveMSers who have written me over the years with notes of appreciation, some of which have been so over the top I had to forward them on to my parents to read. And to those members who are still waiting patiently for me to write back, thanks for understanding that I don’t always respond promptly (I will write, really!). And to those few who troll me because I need to be reminded that not everyone in the universe is a fan of beer and Cheetos and my humor (wait, whaaa?).

Lenny and Claudia, two of our many dear friends.
Thank you to my friends who invite me to dinner at their home without expecting a reverse invite. To my friends who pass up rocky single track to cycle on pavement with me. To my friends who travel many miles (current record, 8,284 miles) to see me just because. To my friends who continue inviting Laura to partake in those passions that I can no longer easily do (snowboarding, hiking, the works)To my friends who understand.

Thank you to the mailman who waits for me to answer the door instead of dropping the package at the stoop so I don’t have to bend down to pick it up. (And inevitably teeter over, hello EMTs!) To my bike tech who pushes me to the front of the line to keep me riding because he knows how important it is for me to stay fit. And to my neighbors who insist on looking after me even though I insist I am fine-ish. (Urban Dictionary has 73 and counting definitions for the word fine, most of which have little to do with actually feeling fine.)

Nicole Lemelle from My New Normals.
Thank you to all who have offered passionate and “insightful” advice about diets, Lyme disease, teeth fillings, turmeric, airport metal detectors, aspartame, and the cavalcade of all of the many cures (CCSVI!) that have been published on the internet and have mysteriously escaped my notice these past 10 years. Your advice keeps me on my toes when it comes to vetting the latest MS buzz. And thanks to the researchers who work tirelessly to separate fact from the poppycock.

Thank you to all the members of ActiveMSers who continue to inspire me far more than they could ever imagine. And to those members who contribute to the website, forums, and social media, further inspiring all of us with this disease. And to all the champions of our shared disease (as well as other conditions) who I have had the great fortune to cross paths with virtually and IRL.

And thank you to my wife Laura—for everything. I notice. Every moment of every day.

To all, have a fantastic 2017. And if I didn’t thank you here, crap… that was a colossal oversight. Sorry. I’ll make it up to you in my next thank you blog. Probably in ten years because I’m lame like that. Happy New Year!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Occasionally Merciful MS Gods

Demi Moore was just going to have to wait for me. In fact, I didn’t even know she was there, much less an arm’s length away, which was probably a very good thing. See, at the time, I was descending some extremely precarious steps at Machu Picchu… on my rear end, one slow butt scooch at a time. And Laura definitely did not want to hear my final words be a surprised celebrity-induced exclamation “HEY, AREN’T YOU THE ACTRESS DEMI MOOooooooooore” as I plunged off a precipice, fortunate to being wearing bright prisoner-orange pants so my body would be easier to recover.

Honestly, I never thought I’d get here, to see firsthand one of the wonders of the world. With my mobility restrictions due to multiple sclerosis, heck, it wasn’t practical for me to be anywhere near here. Especially on this day, of all days.

A steady rain had glazed our train car all morning, turning the scenic ride to Aguas Calientes—the launchpad for the Inca ruin—into a trip that forebode misfortune. The rocky steps and paths of Machu Picchu, already worn smooth over the centuries, were sure to be as slick as a throw rug on a freshly waxed floor. As we picked up rain ponchos in the market to go with our raincoats and umbrellas, my stomach churned.

Up until now, the MS gods had been incredibly merciful on this trip. Despite forecasts of rain, we had met only sun. Food and stomach issues were never a problem, illness had thankfully stayed away (when I hugged my mom goodbye for this vacation, she informed me she had just gotten a cold!), and even my bladder and bowel issues were cooperating as much as they can cooperate. That was a bit of a shocker, as staying well hydrated was critical to avoid altitude sickness, a common and debilitating threat in the Andes that was never realized in our case.

As our bus twisted up the mountainside to get to the 15th century Inca citadel, a 30-minute bumpy ride, I was resigned to spending the afternoon parked next to a covered gift shop touting Peruvian knickknacks, clothing made with faux alpaca, and pan-flute CDs (gah, playing on repeat!). And then the rain stopped, the mist lifted, the sun shone, the rocks dried. I was going to be able to visit Machu Picchu, a place I thought forever off limits. Thank you, MS gods! 

And then we got to the entrance… with steps everywhere. And I was informed that if I had to use the bathroom, now would be a mighty good time—I'd have to hold it for the next five hours—as there were no facilities in the ruins. And, warning, there were many more steps to come before we could reach any vista, only without those pesky, helpful railings found at the entry. And because the Inca were such anal-retentive master builders, deep handholds in the wall were virtually nonexistent since virtually every rock was a perfect, snug fit. Curse you, MS gods! 

But then, serendipitously, it all happened. I managed the myriad steps (slowly). I managed the narrow passages (slowly). I rolled on the packed dirt paths clinging to the hillsides (slowly). And when we reached the Temple of the Sun, the most important building in all of Machu Picchu, the decision to climb to the base was nonnegotiable. The brilliant Torreon was as advertised. 

We discovered Demi later in a photo (bottom left in purple).
Taking in what I had just accomplished, I realized just how fortunate I had been. Multiple sclerosis tried its best to stop me, and it failed today. I also realized that it was wise not to push my luck. I know too well the fickleness of those MS gods. It was time to find a safe zone and park it so Laura could fully explore Machu Picchu. That meant instead of picking my way down the OMG steep steps of Temple of the Sun on forearm crutches (no doubt risking a trip-ending fall), I opted for the far safer technique of dropping down one step at a time on my duff: Move one leg, move the other, drop a step, repeat. 

Thanks for understanding, Demi.

*For those wondering, and I know many of you are, unbelievably I did not have to pee for the full five hours we were away from the bathroom. My extra layer of protection was never needed. The MS gods may never be so kind again, but I’ll take it. Also, my guides at Aracari (www.aracari.com) probably had a hand in my success as well.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

No Regrets, Disability Be Damned

One of my life’s mantras is No Regrets. Sure, it’s cliché, but I never wanted to look back on missed opportunities and wonder What If. But when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, that mantra collided with an incurable disease and it made me pause. Maybe I should take a pass more often for my health. Maybe I should live more conservatively. Maybe I should take fewer risks. So in that first year, when the enormity of coping with MS mentally was at its crescendo, I did. And I passed up a once-in-a-lifetime experience that haunts me to this day.

Now I could point to the missed opportunity to ride horses with Laura on a Mexican beach that year … when I was certain the headline in the following day’s paper was going to read Founder of ActiveMSers Dies in Freak Horse Accident. Or I could point to the missed opportunity that year to try surfing for the first time (similarly, Founder of ActiveMSers Perishes in Freak Surfing Accident). At the time, freak accidents seemed almost a given if I strayed from the safety of curling into a ball feeling sorry for myself. But no, these regrets pale to what happened in Las Vegas on November 1, 2006.

The location: SEMA, the invitation-only, over-the-top aftermarket car show that the Fast and the Furious movie franchise was essentially built around. The scene: the high-performance drifting track hazy with tire smoke and an unfortunate engine fire. The situation: As editor-in-chief of a Nissan magazine, I was being introduced to owners of souped up sports cars. But one owner had his own personal tractor beam and fan base: supermodel Tyson Beckford, at the time Ralph Lauren’s leading man.

I’ll admit my man crush was instantaneous. I remember the moment—the clothes, the handshake, the frighteningly good looks, piercing eyes, and epic jaw—as though it had happened yesterday. We talked cars. We talked drifting. I admired his modified 350Z. Tyson then handed me a small leather box (and I can say Tyson because by then we were basically on a first-name basis, at least in my head). Inside, on a bed of felt, was a gold access card. He had just invited me to his exclusive private party that he was hosting that night. Me.

How could I possibly go to a party that started well after my bedtime? How could I possibly go to such a party when I exuded about as much coolness as a pair of used lime-green Crocs. How? But there was a bigger problem, or so I thought: I had multiple sclerosis. I was disabled. I should play it safe, get my eight hours of sleep, and floss to prevent tooth decay.

So I never showed up.

Tyson Beckford. Photo by Jesse Gross.
More than two thirds of those diagnosed with MS are women, and I would hope right now that all of you are yelling at your computer screen calling me an idiot. For that matter, the guys, too. You all would be right. That party, I imagine, would have been epic, like the Hangover without the drunk wedding, naked Chinese dude, and Mike Tyson. Check that, Mike might have been there. And there might have been a tiger in the bathroom. The point is, I’ll never know.

There’s a valuable lesson here. No matter what your disability, don’t let it rule your life. Don’t let it dictate your every move. Don’t just play it safe. If you do, some of life’s most priceless moments will pass by like the sun fading into the horizon. Or a Tyson Beckford rager. From that day on I resurrected my mantra—No Regrets, MS be damned. And I haven’t regretted it since.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Failure is an Option

I stared at the kayak. “Oh, hell no,” my brain was telling me. I wasn’t worried about the paddling part—my arms can crank. But the getting in part, the staying upright part, the getting out part, and the whole not drowning part were an issue. Laura wanted to go, and suggested a tandem kayak would alleviate many of my concerns. My brain was skeptical. My brain, wisely, wanted to bail. And then, on the edge of a tiny lake in Colorado Springs six hours from home, my celebrity doomed me.

“Hey, don’t you do a blog?!”

Egad. Mr. ActiveMSer has been spotted contemplating waffling on well, being active.

“I love ActiveMSers, it’s so inspiring to see you getting out and doing what you can. It helped motivate me to climb a fourteener. You are awesome! I’m Meg, a longtime member with multiple sclerosis. It’s so great to meet you in person.”

Gulp. Totally busted. There was no way I could let Meg down now.

Okay, I reasoned with my brain, if Meg can do a fourteener (she even got a tattoo to commemorate the experience), I can attempt to kayak for a measly 15 minutes. So I went through my basic pre-kayak checklist: life jacket—check, paddle—check, behaving bladder—check (as much as one can check such things).

As I expected, getting into the kayak was challenging. But with a little help, I was off and paddling! That is, until I wasn’t. While my arms are great, my core (despite lots of training) puts the eh in meh. With my legs in front of me and no back support in this particular kayak, after a half dozen strokes I was admiring the puffy clouds directly above me in the sky. I discovered kayaking while lying on one’s back is rather impossible.

For the rest of our excursion, which was nearly a half hour, Laura did 98 percent of the work while I grabbed my legs to stay upright. If we got near shore, I’d paddle for a few strokes in the event a swarm of paparazzi (or just Meg) was going to capture my lameness for the tabloids. Oh, I didn’t actually care. Why?

See, earlier that day I played wheelchair tennis, a sport I feared would depress me, and just remind me of how I used to love to play the game and how I now had no business setting foot (or wheels as the case may be) on the court. Sure, I was terrible, but it was fantastic fun. Laura had to drag me off the court after nearly two hours. We even played doubles!

The point is, there likely will be times with multiple sclerosis that you fail trying to do something that the old you could do effortlessly. It’s important to realize that that’s okay. Heck, when you have MS, failure absolutely is an option, and an important one. Because if you never try, if you never experiment, if you never leave your comfort zone, then this disease wins. Screw* that.

While I enjoyed getting out on the lake on a beautiful day, I’ll try to kayak again with proper back support (and ideally an adaptive instructor). And I’ll get back out on the tennis court with a proper wheelchair designed for swinging the racquet and chasing balls. As for when motivation wanes and doubt creeps in, I discovered that you need to find inspiration wherever and however you can. This day it was a touch of serendipity, and her name was Meg.

*Note: my editor, aka wife, used this word to replace the more descriptive and vulgar word that I had originally chosen. Children, she reasoned, might read this. Meanwhile, I’m thinking kids have better things to do than to read blogs that contain words that rhyme with duck. While I always defer to her (always) better judgement, feel free to replace said word in your head for dramatic effect.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

How to Survive 20 MRIs

Last month, if my count is correct, I had my 20th MRI. And in those 20 MRIs, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that I feel I absolutely must share—lessons that will comfort you on your next tube adventure. Or lessons that will rattle you to the very core and make you shudder in anticipation of your next trip inside The Tunnel of Doom. You never imagine something is going to go wrong. Until it does. Oh, Geez.

Now I know what you are probably thinking: Dave is going to tell a story about how he once accidentally forgot to remove his barbell-style tongue stud and for 45 minutes his tongue, literally, was glued to the sidewall of the 3-Tesla machine (featuring a powerful open-bore magnet) rendering him speechless for the first time in his 47 years. And how it took three medical techs to extricate Mr. Bexfield’s tongue from said magnet by using a plastic knife and a pair of sporks from someone’s well-timed Burger King takeout. Ah, you’d be wrong. But close.

As an MRI aficionado—and one can call oneself an aficionado after shooting the tube nearly two dozen times—I’ve amassed an impressive MRI resume. I’ve experienced short MRIs (20 minutes) and long MRIs (1.5 hours). I’ve been in open MRIs and closed MRIs, weak MRIs and strong MRIs, and portable MRIs and permanent MRIs. I’ve gotten MRIs with contrast and MRIs without contrast. I’ve had spine MRIs and brain MRIs. But nothing prepared me for one fateful afternoon with Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O'Malley Armstrong.

Now, there has always been one reliable constant during every imaging session: that telltale MRI siren call, a racket akin to a cross between whales mating, a symphony of jackhammers, and a pig stuck in a well. Chk, chk, chk, EEE, EEE, EEE, UHH, UHH, UHH, D’OH, D’OH, D’OH. Fortunately, some MRI facilities offer entertainment to keep your mind off all the incessant whale/jackhammer/pig clattering, usually in the form of music (I’ve even watched several feature-length films, how trick is that?!, but that’s not typical).

For one of my MRIs, I made the decision to select a Dido CD, Life for Rent. It seemed like a genius choice at the time—soothing, but not too soothing, with enough defiance to resonate with someone who has multiple sclerosis. The first track: White Flag, a song about not surrendering, not giving up. Perfect… until 30 seconds in, when disaster struck, my own personal tongue-stud catastrophe. Yup. The CD started to skip.

I had a choice between two terrible options. I could squeeze the “emergency” bulb to signal the MRI tech that there was a problem, potentially triggering an urgent rush to aid a patient in distress, shutting down the MRI, and delaying every poor individual after me—all over a skipping CD. Or I could suck it up for 20 minutes. You don’t all need to call me a hero, but I wasn’t going to raise that white flag. Oh, hell no. I bravely took one for the team.

After my harrowing experience, I was presented with the Dido CD. It hasn’t skipped since.
Now if you are reading this post because you really wanted practical MRI advice for someone with MS, I actually do have a few good tips. Pee first (but not too early, wait until you’ve been called back), make sure you are hydrated (enough) if you need to get poked for contrast, don’t wear anything metal (rings, earrings, glasses, tongue studs), be as still as possible (well, duh), close your eyes (unless you can watch a movie), mentally chillax if you are claustrophobic (there may be some pharma solutions), and smile when you think of this post. Oh, and be thankful Dido isn’t starting the same song over 1,832 times.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

When MSers Attack: Hate Mail Fail

After running ActiveMSers for 10 years, I’ve discovered blogging has its occasional hazards. I’ve received angry phone calls from businesses furious that their product did not receive better reviews in my tests. I’ve gotten dismissive e-mails highlighting my idiocy and lack of knowledge about fill-in-the-blank (e.g., “What do you know about stem cell transplants, huh, Dave???”). I’ve even been threatened with a lawsuit for violating HIPAA when a member in her 30s, despite common sense and living in the Internet age, chose to use her full real name on our public, searchable forum. Shocker, Google found it. Although I immediately scrubbed everything related to this member from my website, it took an hour to explain to her mom, yes her mom, that I cannot also remove content from Google. But nothing could have prepared me for last week: an epic, seething over-the-top hate mail from a fellow MSer blasting me for a perceived slight.

“First of all Dave, you have primary progressive MS, stop relating to RRM. The remark you made about the 5 foot nothing nurse really irks me! It sounds like you think you're better than she is? Well hello, you may be taller than she is but, guess what, she can walk and you can't!! So, who is really the nothing? Oh, and yes who has the job! Who the heck gave you this notion that you were better than shorter people? Were you scrawny a geek, and your parents taught you that you should be proud to be tall!? FYI, I'm 5'8" but I think it's terrible how some people be little people for people that are shorter than them to make themselves feel better!”

I don't even troll trolls.
Oof. Okay, for starters I have relapse remitting MS (perhaps now secondary progressive, but not officially) and I’d like to think I relate to all MSers regardless of type. Technically I can still walk (slowly), but like that matters when it comes to being "something." And I do just fine running this little website called ActiveMSers. Ah, I digress. But making fun of short people? That’s not typically my MO. Now, I’m far from infallible. I’ve said some stupid things over the years (usually in a failed attempt at humor), and I’ll fess up, albeit stubbornly at times, when I lay an egg. But what did I do this time? Apparently use the English language properly. See, punctuation matters, e.g., Let’s eat Grandpa v. Let’s eat, Grandpa.

The best that I can infer after I found my jaw on the floor: in my most recent blog post I referred to my petite hero-of-a nurse who amazingly propped up my unconscious body as “five-foot-nothing,” meaning five foot, zero inches. The expression has been used hundreds and hundreds of times in recent news articles. It was immortalized in this iconic scene from the movie Rudy. Heck, usage in America goes back over 100 years. None of it derogatory. But this particular member of ActiveMSers must have grossly misread the sentence and thought that I had made fun of my nurse because of her height and called her “a nothing.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

I debated posting this for obvious reasons, but I felt we all at times need a reminder that words have consequences. I’m not going to kid myself that civility will rise up on the internet like a double rainbow (whoa, double rainbow all the way) and knee-jerk-reactions will vanish like Mr. Snuffleupagus (but he was right there!). But we are better than this. Members of ActiveMSers are working together for the same goal, to live better with multiple sclerosis. We are one.

Resist the urge to criticize this member—well, now former member (I welcome her to rejoin). We all have bad days, we all say things we regret. I’m not excusing her comments, but lashing back serves no positive purpose. This disease of ours can put us on an edge (or a ledge?) that is difficult for others to comprehend. When that happens, take a breath. Step back. Be the bigger person. And for gosh sakes, next time someone feels I need to get straightened out (and there will be a next time), maybe give me the benefit of the doubt. Oh, and leave my parents out of it. My poor folks tried their best.