A person's struggle with MS officially begins when they are diagnosed by a neurologist. But in order to receive this diagnosis, a patient must first experience symptoms for some period of time, often years. Therefore, each of us with MS owns a collection of memories which were baffling when they occurred, but later made sense in the context of our eventual diagnosis. And for each of us, there is that single, earliest memory of something unexplained. When I recently came across this old team photo, I was reminded of my first MS memory.
In the summer of 1999 my wife and I coached our daughter’s Little League softball team. We instructed the girls on the basic skills and knowledge required of the sport, but placed more emphasis on fun than on winning. This was fortunate, because our team was not blessed with an abundance of natural athletic talent.
There were six teams in the league, and we finished the regular season in last place. In the playoffs, the best two teams were given first-round byes, so we went up against the number three-ranked team. Somehow we managed to win the game. Maybe all of our positive reinforcement was beginning to pay off.
That win “rewarded” us with a game against the number one, undefeated team in the next round. They had the best athletes and a serious coach who pushed them hard to win. Kim and I accepted a dinner invitation for the following night, the date of the next round of playoffs, because we knew this would be our last game of the season. But of course we didn’t share our doubts with the girls. Like all our games, we just reminded them to play hard and have fun.
I don't know what got into our girls, but they played inspired ball. We went into the top of the final inning trailing by only a 6 – 4 score. We rose to the challenge. Every girl started hitting the ball hard. We scored a run to pull within 6 - 5, and had the bases loaded with nobody out. It was thrilling. One of our best hitters was at the plate. What we lacked in talent, we made up for in enthusiasm, sometimes to a fault. Our dinner plans for the next day were in jeopardy, but we didn’t care.
In fact, the three girls on base were so excited that they forgot one of the basic tenets of the game, which we had taught them from the very first practice. Our batter struck the ball hard, but directly at the third base person, who caught it on a line for the first out. All three of our girls on base were so excited about how hard the ball was hit that they just started running. Kim and I yelled and pointed and waved our arms like crazy people, but it was too late. The third base person threw it to second base for a double play, and the second base person threw it to first base for an inning-ending, game-ending, season-ending triple play. Ouch!
We all gathered to congratulate the winners and celebrate our fun and exciting season. Soon, the trauma of the triple play was behind us.
So what does this have to do with my earliest MS symptom? A couple weeks before the playoffs, we were concluding one of our team practices with a fun activity. I had a stopwatch and was determining who could run around the bases the fastest. After all the girls had taken their turn, they insisted that Kim and I give it a go. Kim ran the bases about a second faster than any of the girls had, which was to be expected since she was a high school track champion.
I then prepared to dazzle the team with my manly speed. Remember, this was a mere Little League softball field, not a regulation baseball field. I cruised around first base and into second base, looking like the next coming of Willie Mays. But somewhere between second and third base my legs suddenly felt like lead. It was clear to me that I wouldn't be able to finish at full speed, so I made the split-second decision to turn my run into a joke, rather than reveal my infirmity. As I rounded third-base I faked a spectacular wipeout, and we all laughed and laughed.
Sure, it seemed odd to me that I couldn't run around the bases without becoming fatigued. But I just assumed that I was horribly out of shape. Of course it never occurred to me on that sunny and carefree day that what I was actually experiencing was the onset of a chronic, disabling disease that 10 years later would leave me in a wheelchair.