Mark McElroy, San Clemente's football coach, is a public figure in a close-knit town. But he's also a private man who cherishes his faith and family more than anything.
He would rather talk about his players or his four kids than himself. But in this case, he made an exception. He felt this story of love, heartache, strength and spirit was worth sharing.
Deanne McElroy, his wife of 17 years, has multiple sclerosis--a chronic, often disabling, disease that randomly attacks the central nervous system and afflicts 300,000 Americans.
Not many people in town know Deanne McElroy has MS. It's not exactly the kind of thing you broadcast.
"If you look at her, you'll say 'Wow, she's pretty,' " Mark said. "She looks great. But you don't know what's going on inside her brain until you look at the CAT scan."
No one knew until early December, 1996, when she collapsed, losing muscle control over the right side of her body.
Doctors thought Deanne might have suffered a minor stroke. Six weeks later, an internist suggested another possibility.
"He asked Deanne if she had ever had any problems with her eyes," McElroy said, his voice starting to crack. "About three years earlier, she had double vision and blurred vision. She went to an ophthalmologist and they just wrote it off as a virus.
"When she told him that, I'll never forget the look on the internist's face. He said that she might have multiple sclerosis."
As he sits in his office preparing for the Tritons' Friday night opener in Honolulu against Punahou, McElroy reflects on the day his family's life changed.
And he weeps.
Until then, McElroy's only association with MS was with a woman that his father, George, a pastor at Mission Viejo Christian Church, saw while visiting shut-ins.
"She was a lady in her mid-30s who had no control of her body," said McElroy, who at that time was in the fifth grade. "She couldn't speak. She was in a wheelchair, living with her parents. So that's what immediately went into my mind."
His next thought was that there was a possibility of a misdiagnosis. He immediately drove to a book store and read what he didn't want to believe.
"We went through everything that had happened and we knew that was it," McElroy said.
Still holding a thread of hope, the McElroys searched for a second opinion. They received it from Dr. Stanley VandenNoort, a neurologist who specializes in MS at UC Irvine Medical Center. VandenNoort diagnosed Deanne with "relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis," the most common form of the disease.
"It means that she will have periods of 'exacerbations' when she might lose feeling in the right side of her body," Mark said.
The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS cannot be predicted. The symptoms vary from tingling and numbness to paralysis and blindness.
MS afflicts twice as many women as men, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Most are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40. It occurs more commonly among Caucasians, especially those of northern European ancestry. Many of those afflicted have lived much of their lives in cold, damp climates.
Deanne meets all those criteria, except the last one. She was born and reared in Southern California.
There is no cure for MS, but there are treatments. Deanne has been taking Avonex, one of three approved drugs for relapsing MS. Taken once a week, Avonex is designed to lessen the severity of attacks and reduce the progression of the disease or the disability.
Deanne has not suffered a severe attack since the one that sent her to the emergency room in December, 1996. But her days are hardly normal.
"MS is a disease that's hidden," Mark said. "If it's hot out, it can really affect her coordination and her stamina. Other aspects come and go, but the fatigue factor is there a lot. With four kids, it's tough. She has a wonderful attitude. She feels blessed. She's thankful for our family and our lives."
Said Deanne: "I've never had a negative outlook on it. I look at it as a condition. Something I have to deal with."
'Why Not Me?'
Mark also has a condition, but far less severe. In early February, 1994, a day after Deanne began experiencing vision problems, Mark dropped to his knees in the San Clemente weight room. He was rushed to the emergency room with a possible heart attack. Doctors discovered that he had "mitral valve prolapse," a non life threatening heart murmur.
"I told him afterward, 'You always have to one up me, don't you,' " Deanne said.
Little did she know that her first symptoms of MS were coming on and she was the one with the serious health problem.
"That's been the hardest part for me, because I always envisioned myself as being the caretaker for my family and Mark," said Deanne, 35. "Now, the tables are turned. I don't know if I'm going to be able to function when my kids are getting married. I try to laugh about it. I tell my mom, 'Gosh, Mom, now I guess we'll be in wheelchairs together.' "