Chapter 24: The Doctor Called It MS
“That’s weird,” I confided in Elgin (my husband) one April evening while in the shower. I inspected the tip of my index finger.
“What’s weird?” Elgin asked through a mouthful of toothpaste.
“My fingertip is tingling or asleep.” I was not too concerned until the weird sensation continued into the night, the next day, and then for days.
Looking back now, I can guess what caused the tingling. I had been playing volleyball for PE with the four secondary kids that afternoon. Scoring a point, a large student and I went to slap a high-five in celebration. He knocked me to the ground with a sucker punch to my hand. Holding my throbbing hand while seated on the floor, I scolded the high schooler. “What were you thinking?”
Feet shuffling and head down, the student confessed. “I just wondered what would happen if I did it. I’m sorry.”
“I should see a doctor in Anchorage,” I told Elgin a few days later. A trip to Anchorage meant a forty-five-minute bush flight to Cold Bay and a two-and-a-half-hour flight on the Reeve Aleutian Airways jet. Then I had to rent a car and find my way around Anchorage, a city I didn’t know yet, while searching for a hotel in a presumably safe area. The trip was not cheap either.
“I cannot teach the entire school by myself all day, and we have no one to substitute,” Elgin replied as the lead teacher of our two-teacher school. Sick time was not an option. We crawled in sick rather than leave the entire student body to the other. “A doctor may see you over Easter break,” he offered.
Chiropractor Dr. Dale Springhill made appointments for me on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and early Sunday morning over the Easter weekend before my flight home. I required no classroom substitute by seeking help over the holiday weekend. No medical doctors planned on seeing patients unless I showed up in the emergency room, and urgent care clinics did not exist on every street corner yet.
Dr. Springhill was excellent. The adjustments failed to fix the tingling, though. He suspected multiple sclerosis or a pinched nerve and gave me the card of a neurologist in Seattle. It was the second time a doctor had suspected MS.
When I was fifteen years old, a language comprehension problem sent me in for an evaluation. Thirteen years had passed. MS symptoms waxed and waned, though no one ever mentioned multiple sclerosis again until now. What was MS anyway? With few resources and no medical websites available during the early days of the internet, I would have to wait until summer to figure this out.
Another symptom developed when I returned home. My arm began burning. I leaned against the cold classroom window to attain the only relief possible. My second bout of pneumonia forced me to sleep on the couch while struggling to breathe, which may have caused a pinched nerve, so I swept the possibility of MS under the rug. I was wrong.
In July, the neurologist identified one lesion in my brain with an MRI. “It may be multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease. Schedule another appointment if you have more symptoms. I recommend not reading about the disease; it can cause you to believe you have symptoms you don’t.”
A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis was scary enough without considering the implications it might have on my career. A non-tenured teacher with skyrocketing medical bills and the need for sick days could cause an uncommitted school district to search for a better deal. For this reason, I kept the potential illness under wraps. Rather than using sick days, I pulled myself out of bed for years with the pep talk. get up. Tomorrow could be worse!
In the not-so-distant future, recurring symptoms caused me to act peculiar for those who didn’t know what was wrong with me. I struggled with confusion, vertigo, vision issues, balance problems, tingling, pain, cognitive deficits, and fatigue. I didn’t always grasp language, which meant reading aloud or speaking with my students was difficult. Strange combinations of words came out of my mouth and in email, forcing my secret out into the open. When the time came to inform our employer, it caused me grave concern for my job security. Fortunately, our highly sought-after technology skills counterbalanced my illness.
But in 1996, all I knew was the doctor had called it MS.
This is an excerpt from my Alaska memoir, “The Call of the Last Frontier: The True Story of a Woman’s Twenty-Year Alaska Adventure.” To learn more about my Alaska Adventure, MS journey and to see the photo gallery from the book, check out my author webpage at: www.MelissaCook.us
Melissa L. Cook, author of "The Call of the Last Frontier," lived an adventurous life teaching and raising her family in remote Alaska for twenty years. Diagnosed with MS in 1996, she learned to manage her illness remotely and eventually went on medical disability in 2011. Today, she resides near Yellowstone National Park in a small Wyoming farming community where she spends her free time exploring the back roads.