The week before, I’d been walking for hours in the Lake-district. Now, I was exhausted and all I’d done was to drag my legs up and down a hospital corridor. Admittedly, hospital corridors are not the shortest, but I’m a walker, accustomed to daily, brisk walking. A hospital corridor should have been an easy stroll for me. Believe me though, they seem to grow to the length of a marathon when you are in the middle of an MS episode.
The walk back from the MRI to the emergency waiting room seemed longer than before though. I gripped onto my husband’s arm, using him as a walking aide. I could barely lift my feet off the floor and my legs would buckle from under me. Both doctors and patients, looked at me in some concern as they passed me on my journey. I’d barely had time to sit down when the nurse came over to me and informed me apologetically, that they needed me to go back to the MRI machine as they needed to do a scan of my neck. I can’t remember what her exact words were but I understood that there were concerns over something that they’d seen in my brain (no wisecrack comments! 😉 and they needed to do a more detailed scan of my neck.
Apart from the fact that it’s not pleasant to discover that your brain has something that shouldn’t be there, I had no energy left to walk. Trying to set aside images of brain surgery, I resolutely set off to face the long corridor again. I managed a couple of steps out of the waiting room, took one look at the corridor and realised that I really couldn’t do it. Turning back, I called out to a nurse and asked her if I could have a wheelchair. I probably shouldn’t have attempted it before, but I was too stubborn to acknowledge my limitations. It’s hard to explain what that moment was like for me. Although I’d spent the last week convincing myself, and attempting to convince everyone else, that it was probably nothing serious, my body was failing me. In that moment, I was forced to face the fact that whatever was going on was likely not a minor problem. I remember being aware of how admitting that I needed the help of a wheelchair and sitting in it when it arrived, took just as much strength as struggling up and down the corridor had done. It was like a nugget of learning as I realised that sometimes being strong means pushing through and sometimes it means painfully admitting that you need help and being humble enough to accept it.
A Wheelchair Ride closer to Diagnosis
I grasped that moment and filed it in my new “if this illness is serious I might need this lesson for later” file! Then off we set back down the corridor, my husband struggling to get used to pushing the wheelchair. Back at the MRI waiting room, the receptionist smiled at me in sympathy and I quipped that I was just saving my energy for later. This time, I chatted a lot more with the technician, as she was asking me questions about my kindle and later had to put a drip into I me. We had good rapport. Then I was back in the machine. Head and neck scans are less claustrophobic because the headgear they place over you has a little mirror and you can observe the technicians at their work. I observed the technicians as they watched the screen in front of them. Sometimes it’s hard to be intuitive, to pick up on information that another person doesn’t mean to communicate and that many people would probably miss. It was just a slight gesture as her colleague pointed something out to her. That tiny gesture of dismay told me that something was definitely there and that she was gutted for me.
This time the technician took me back to the emergency waiting room and there the main nurse was waiting for me. She informed me that unfortunately they needed to admit me and that the dr. would come to talk to me straight away. That was the longest journey of my life, and it took place in a wheelchair. We travelled through the maze of corridors, up the lift, to a ward and then to my own room, the nearest to the toilets. As we travelled, all that went through my mind was that I must have a brain tumour. I didn’t consider the possibility of anything else. I wondered whether it was cancerous. My Mum had just started chemotherapy. I prayed that I would have the strength for whatever was about to happen. I wondered how my family would react to another terrible diagnosis. It was a surreal moment when time seemed to go slower and my whole future was a question mark.
The Joy of Not having a Brain Tumour!
When the dr. gave me the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, I felt the strangest of feelings. The first feeling was enormous relief. I didn’t have a brain tumour; I didn’t have cancer. Then I started to cry. I wondered whether I would ever walk again. The image that I had in my head was one of a woman that I worked with for five months after I finished my dramatherapy training. I was working in a day centre for adults with disabilities and she had multiple sclerosis. I met her a year after diagnosis and she was in a wheelchair, using a catheter and unable to feed herself. Her husband had to use a hoist to get her in and out of bed and understandably, she was depressed. That was my image of multiple sclerosis and I was devastated. Later I was told that I would almost certainly recover and be able to walk again but that I would probably suffer similar attacks in the future. I determined that I would make the most of every step.
Walking After the MS Diagnosis
Ten days later, I walked the corridor for the first time. I had a physiotherapist on either side of me supporting me. I struggled to keep my balance and my legs buckled beneath me. I fixed my gaze on the end and walked. It was painfully slow, but I was walking! After I was discharged from hospital, I built up the amount that I was walking every day. In the beginning my targets were local cafes! I walked to one that was a little further away each time. Soon I was walking the 2 miles each way to my physiotherapy appointments. I continued to experience electric shock like symptoms and sometimes my legs would buckle beneath me. Sometimes, they still do. Some people thought I was pushing myself too hard; thankfully my dr wasn’t one of them! Others saw the way I got back into walking as a sign of strength. There’s nothing strong about walking though. I walk because I can walk. Yes, I pushed myself. Yes, I made the decision to keep going. But, so did I make that decision when I sat in that wheelchair to get back to the MRI machine. I wasn’t going to remain in the hospital corridor. I wasn’t going to risk falling over. So, I kept going and I sat down and allowed myself to be helped. That was a moment of strength.
Sometimes it Takes More Strength to Sit Than to Stand.
At the end of next month, I’ll be walking the last 113 kms of the Santiago pilgrim route. It will be a challenge. I will walk and walk and walk, with others from my MS association. And maybe some people will say that I’m strong, but really I’m just walking because I can. I’m walking because part of me wants to say, “Stuff you MS!” I’m walking because maybe if I keep walking and walking, I’ll keep my distance from this horrible illness that once took that away from me. The illness that can strike unawares at any time. I walk because I can walk. I will walk and think of those who cannot. And although my experience was only brief, I know that sometimes it takes more strength to sit than to stand. Sometimes it takes more strength to accept help than to keep fighting without it. So, when you see someone in a wheelchair, don’t look first at the wheelchair; see the person. Maybe they have had to fight the hardest battle of all and maybe they won. Don’t see weakness but look for their strength. I will walk because I can walk but don’t see me as being stronger now than I was in that hospital corridor. Don’t see me as being stronger than those with MS, or any other illness, that are in a wheelchair. It’s got nothing to do with strength. When your body fails you, it fails you. And then we each decide how we will respond. I walk because I can walk.