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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

Those With MS Need Help, Not Pity

June 30, 2002|JIM GRAVES | Jim Graves is the communications coordinator of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Orange County Chapter. The chapter's Web site is www.nmssoc.org .

The unfortunate reality of the human condition is that after an initial spurt of growth and physical development in our childhood and youth, we begin a slow physical decline by the time we reach adulthood.

We're all familiar with the symptoms the elderly experience: diminished ability to see and hear, stiff and painful joints, a loss of balance or even the ability to walk, forgetfulness or greater difficulty in mental focusing, aches and pains, limited energy, loss of strength and coordination and the like. In a nutshell, our bodies wear out, and we are no longer able to function or respond in the ways we did when we were young.

It's a potentially depressing scenario, to be sure, but on the positive side of things, most of us won't experience the more severe symptoms of aging until we're into our 60s, 70s or older, especially if we live healthy lifestyles. However, for the 3,000 Orange County residents diagnosed with multiple sclerosis), they may experience symptoms commonly associated with old age in their 30s, 40s or sooner.

MS is believed to be an autoimmune disease, wherein the body's own defense system attacks myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers of the brain, optic nerves and spinal cord: the central nervous system.

The damaged myelin may form scar tissue, or sclerosis, and sometimes the nerve fiber is also damaged. Therefore, with any part of the myelin sheath or nerve fiber damaged, nerve impulses to and from the brain are distorted or interrupted. Hence, young or middle-aged people may experience symptoms most of us won't experience until we're senior citizens.

For Edwina Crites of Newport Beach, this means loss of the ability to walk and the need for regular care to perform the most basic household tasks. For Lois Wareham of Orange Park Acres, it means chronic fatigue. For Jay Tilton of Capistrano Beach, it means difficulty in writing legibly and concentrating.

For Debby Most of Laguna Niguel, it means chronic pain that she compares to a swarm of bees stinging parts of her body. In addition to the physical symptoms, as with any chronic illness, MS can have devastating emotional and psychological effects.

In recent decades, major strides have been made toward helping people with MS live normal lives. Currently, there are four federally approved medications that can slow the progression of the disease. Additionally, there are a variety of physical exercises that can help people with MS greatly improve their quality of life. However, the cause of and a cure for the disease remain unknown.

While few of us may be scientists or physicians, we can all play a role in the fight against MS. We can educate ourselves about the disease, so we can understand what it is and how it affects the person with it. Should we know people diagnosed with MS, we can offer them not our pity but our understanding, kindness and friendship.

MS is not as prevalent as cancer or heart disease and hence receives less attention from the public. However, we must remember that each day, 29 of our fellow Americans receive the news that they have MS and face an uncertain future. Our active involvement today, especially considering recent scientific and medical breakthroughs, offers them the best hope for more effective treatments and an eventual cure.

In Orange County, where there is so much emphasis on quality of life and where the year-round climate is conducive to being young and healthy, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that thousands of our neighbors are suffering. Here we need more involvement from volunteers, and in a community known for its affluence, more contributors to help with important research.

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