Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When Does MS Begin?

A person's struggle with MS officially begins when they are diagnosed by a neurologist. But in order to receive said diagnosis, a patient must have already experienced symptoms for some period of time, often years. Therefore, each of us with MS harbors memories of early events, sometimes troubling and other times casually dismissed, which are relevant only in light of an 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 what I now recognize as 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 had begun to pay off.

The reward for our efforts was a game against the number one, undefeated team. They had the best athletes and a serious coach who pushed them hard to win. Kim and I accepted a dinner invitation with friends for the night after this game, because we were confident that our team would be soundly beaten by this juggernaut, and our coaching commitment would be finished. But of course we didn’t share these doubts with the team. As with all our games, we simply encouraged 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 a 6 – 4 score, but we rose to the challenge. Every girl started hitting the ball well. 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. Kim and my clandestine dinner plans for the next day were in jeopardy, but we didn’t mind.

In fact, the three girls on base were so excited that they forgot one of the basic tenets of the game, which we had drilled them on 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 base runners, unconsciously reacting to the loud crack of the bat, just started running (actually it was more of a loud ting than a crack because we used aluminum bats). Kim and I yelled and pointed and waved our arms like crazy people, but it was too late. The third base person threw to second base for a double play, and the second base person threw on to first base for an inning-ending, game-ending, season-ending, Little-League-softball-coaching-career-ending, triple play. Ouch!

We all gathered to congratulate the winners and celebrate our wonderful season. Soon, the trauma of the triple play was behind us.

So what does this softball team have to do with my earliest MS symptom? A couple of weeks before the playoffs, we were concluding one of our team practices with a fun activity. I had a stopwatch, and I was determining who could run around the bases the fastest. After all the girls had taken their turns, 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 sudden infirmity (even to myself). 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 lots of strange things happen in our lives, and I gave this incident no further thought. 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 would profoundly alter the arc of my life.

Feeling some déjà vu? That’s because this post is based on a similar one from January of 2011. Yeah, I did that…


  1. This brought back memories of my first weird symptom -- a "heavy" leg (not on the ballfield, but at the mall.) I, too, made light of it by joking, but the worry started to creep in.
    BTW: My husband coached boys' little league and girls' softball, too.

  2. This is interesting...I've tried to nail down my very first symptoms too. I think some minor loss of balance came before I noticed anything and if true, it allows me to predate the onset by about 4 years.

  3. Yup. In November 1988, one morning at work it seemed like I was trying to look at the world through eyeglasses with a greasy smudge on the left lens. An ophthalmologist told me it was optic neuritis, and said it would probably go away by itself. Good enough for me. It did, and I didn't give it another thought. A friend who knew more about such things than I did knew of the association between ON and MS, but didn't say anything about it. Sometimes ignorance (in this case, nine years of ignorance) really is bliss.

  4. Muffie,

    I like you, I was pretty oblivious as to what was happening in my body. It only made sense to me looking back.


    Four years does not seem like an unusual amount of time from first symptom to diagnosis. Was only a year and a half for me, which seems relatively quick.

    doggies of the zoom variety,

    Funny how your ophthalmologist treated it so lightly. I guess she/he didn't want to be the bearer of potentially bad news. Wimp!