It was 2007, I was 17, and I had just started my senior year of high school. I was starting to think about my SATs and which colleges I wanted to apply for, and I was also looking forward to another year of competing in my area’s beauty pageants and going to prom.
I was only a few months into school when I woke up one morning and couldn’t feel the right side of my body. I thought that it was just a pinched nerve, so my parents took me to see a chiropractor. However, after a few days, it still hadn’t gone away; it was actually getting worse, and I was really worried.
After a month of seeing doctors and a lot of tests, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, or MS. I had no clue what MS was, and when I searched online, all the information was pretty scary. I could end up in a wheelchair, go blind or lose some of my brain function.
Once I was diagnosed, I started seeing a neurologist and he gave me more information about MS. I learned that it’s a disease that affects the part of the body called the central nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. My neurologist told me that the cells in my body that usually keep me healthy were getting confused and were attacking the coating that protected the nerves in my brain, which is called myelin. Beyond the initial numbness, I would later experience a number of different symptoms, which would come and go, including difficulty moving my legs and hands, issues with walking, extreme fatigue and migraines. At one point early on, I wasn’t able to write because of difficulty holding a pencil. These symptoms would be unpredictable, and they would continue throughout my life. I was told that no two people with MS have the same experience—the disease manifests itself differently in each and every person who has it. I was put on an injection treatment, and while my MS couldn’t be cured, the treatment could help slow down my disease.
I went through a huge depression after I was diagnosed with MS. I didn’t know how I could go on and do the things that I loved. During this time, I was accepted to Newberry College and had already sent off my forms to save a dorm room. But I had no idea if I would even be able to go to college with my MS.
A lot of everyday stuff became hard. There were days when my MS caused me to feel so tired that I’d need help getting around the house after a long day of school, but I learned to work around it, and eventually it became another routine. What really ended up getting me through was competing in beauty pageants. I was still competing when I was diagnosed, and once the numbness on the right side of my body wasn’t as bad, I started to feel well enough to keep competing. I used my personal experiences and struggles with MS as my platform during beauty pageants as a chance to help raise awareness about the disease. I learned through my journey that a lot of people didn’t know what MS was or why I was changing because of it. I had to educate my friends, teachers and family.
With MS as my platform that year, I won Miss Union, a scholarship pageant through Miss South Carolina and Miss America that promotes giving back to the community and helps young women with college scholarships through service.
It was easier once I had my support network in place, but going to college the next year was still really daunting. I was scared by the idea of moving away from home. With my MS, I could have relapses; those days were hard, but I also knew it was something that I could get through with my parents and my friends right there. Still, when I graduated high school, I wanted to give college a try because all my friends were going away and I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity.
Like most schools, Newberry had a week-long orientation for the incoming freshman class, and this was the first time I would be away from home. Because the first day of orientation started on a day when I had to take my injection medication, I needed to stay with my parents—that way my parents could monitor any effects of the treatment (it often gave me a flu-like feeling) and made me feel safer, since this would be the first time taking my injection away from my home. I found the hardest days were around when I took my treatment. I would feel like I was coming down with a cold–very achy and tired. Being with my parents those first few days definitely meant that I missed out on a lot of the experiences from orientation.
My roommate was a girl who went to high school with me, so she knew about my MS already; that made things a bit easier. During that first night at college, after orientation and after my parents left, I had to take my injection and it made me very sick. I thought, “How am I going to live a college life if I’m sick all the time?” That first week without my parents was hard, but I eventually got settled. Like in high school, I developed a routine and started to focus on the positive things – I was in a new place with new people, and I wanted to join in and do everything.
Because stress is one of the main triggers for my MS and can cause me to be severely fatigued or have numbness in my limbs, it took time for me to adjust to college life in general. I had a new schedule of classes, I had around-the-clock social activities and I was living in a dorm, not at home. I made a group of friends who knew about my MS, and they were super supportive. Seeing how understanding they were of my MS and how supportive they were when I had to deal with my injections or symptoms was awesome.
I was also fortunate that Newberry College was close enough to home so that I could still have the support from my family, but it wasn’t too close. It was a good balance for me, and looking back, having home so close made me feel better about everything.
That first year I joined a sorority, Sigma Sigma Sigma. My sisters became my family away from home. There are three sororities at Newberry, and they are all filled with great women. It was difficult during recruitment week to decide where I wanted to go, but what stuck out about Tri Sigma was that I felt immediately like I was ‘home,’ that this was where I needed to be. Being part of a community made my college experience more fulfilling. My sorority opened me up to a new world of volunteering and getting involved with the community. My sorority sisters also supported me in my pageants, which I still didn’t want to give up.
Throughout my four years of college, I had a couple of minor MS relapses, but I remember very clearly one really major relapse during my sophomore year. It was hard for me to walk at one point, but I was able to get around with the help of my friends and sisters. During this time, it was very important for me to take care of my physical and mental health. I learned a lot about myself and my new limitations with MS, but I also learned how to work around these limitations and what I could still do or accomplish.
For example, I might not be able to train for a half marathon, but I could still go out dancing with friends every once in a while or do other types of exercises. It was all about balance for me and my MS. It was also very helpful for me to have open conversations with my neurologist to make sure that I was on the right treatment for me. Because of those conversations, in 2009, my neurologist put me in a clinical trial for a once-daily oral therapy, Aubagio. I have been on that treatment ever since and it has helped me manage my MS in a way that works for me.
In my senior year, it was a great honor for me to win Miss Newberry College, an annual pageant that allows women to showcase their self-confidence and talents as well as show support for their fellow competitors. Each year, Miss Newberry College has the opportunity to go on to compete in Miss South Carolina. When I started college, I had no idea if I could even get through all four years, but I did and I was still able to do what I was passionate about. It was such a great personal achievement! With college coming to an end, it was time for me to think about my next move–-not only as a person living with MS, but also as a soon-to-be young professional in the working world.
What I decided was that I wasn’t going to let my MS define me. I still wanted to be active in the community and also find a job that meant something important to me. I now work as a sixth-grade English teacher for Newberry Middle School. I’m still involved with volunteer work with my sorority as an advisor, and I’ve also found a lot of support in the MS community and have become a patient advocate.
College was hard, but I have to say that having MS really helped me determine whom I was and what I wanted to do in a way that I couldn’t have ever imagined. It really showed me what I could accomplish and challenged me in a way that has helped for my life after college. It made me realize that I am more than my MS!
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