Inside My Bubble, Prepared for Anything

By: Jeri Burtchell

I like to think of myself as a planner. Now, before those of you who know me collapse into uncontrollable laughter, let me explain. I don’t plan as in “wedding planner” or even use a “day planner.” In truth, I’m a perfect candidate for one of those intervention reality shows.

I never said I plan in a structured, well thought-out manner. No, I’m motivated by more of a panic-driven, deeply troubled, “what-if” thought process I learned from my mother. I have cultivated an emergency response for every possible scenario that could come along in life. I have prepared for catastrophic events that may or may not ever happen.

Mom and I have our fire season evacuation box, our hurricane season supply stash, and when I travel I have a whole suitcase packing ritual designed to make life easier in the event that things go wrong. When connections are missed or there are bathroom emergencies, I know I can count on the contents of my purse or roller bag to rescue me.

I like to think of this as part of my MS Bubble. Since I was diagnosed in 1999 and have come to realize how unpredictable it can be, one small thing that gives me solace is having my MS Bubble.

Jeri blogIt’s a sort of invisible force field I’ve visualized that surrounds me. Inside I have everything I might need to deal with unpredictable events. Things that define my comfort or bring me joy are always close at hand.

Others might say my bubble is nothing more than my “comfort zone,” and in the classic sense, I guess it is. When I’m working, it’s right here at my desk. In my bubble/comfort zone, I keep the necessities of life. I have everything from a box of tissues to device charging cables.

While others look at my workstation and see a chaotic mess, I see a symphony of bubble-friendly instruments, each playing a part in bringing me comfort. I choose to forgo the aesthetic appeal of minimalism. I’d rather have clutter, as long as it’s purposeful clutter. Who can say I won’t need that thermometer mere inches from my keyboard?

My sweater stays on the back of my chair, always at hand in case I get chilled. Slippers are close by.

My smartphone is the most indispensable tool in my bubble. It connects me socially, delivers my mail, reminds me to take medications, tells me what the weather is like outside, and will distract me with games if I let it.

The point is, I have made my life as comfortable as I can, given the unpredictability of MS (and of life itself!). Although my bubble does not appear to be in any semblance of order to the untrained eye, it works for me.

I haven’t “planned” my bubble this way as in planning-a la-Martha-Stewart. It is only an ever-evolving collection of habits and things that aid me in everyday life. So I am soothed by the knowledge that, even when my MS symptoms are acting up, my MS bubble is always there, ready to comfort me.

Perhaps it’s eccentric of me to imagine this “bubble,” but visualization is a coping mechanism that works for me. I once got through the claustrophobia of an unmedicated MRI by imagining I was at the beach. My “vacation” was so enjoyable I was almost sad when the MRI ended. The protective “bubble” just works for me.

If you can develop coping strategies – whether or not they involve visualizing your own bubble – whatever works to keep you calm, centered, comfortable, and in a joyful state of mind is all that matters. So think about your situation and what things bother you the most. Then go about “planning” to deal with them ahead of time.

Create your own comfort zone, your own MS Bubble.

And if you’re a friend or family member of someone coping with MS, you might want to consider memorizing these 12 things you should never say to someone with a chronic condition.

But please add one more: Never say, “I took the liberty of cleaning up your desk. Hope you don’t mind – it was a real MESS!”

Why, that would just burst my bubble!

References:
Photo credit: Jeff Kubina, used with permission under the Creative Commons License
http://www.healthline.com/health-news/ms-12-things-not-to-say-022814#1

*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.

 

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National Day of Gratitude

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
― William Arthur Ward

Thank someone on National Day of GratitudeRecently on Facebook, a trend has emerged where individuals are challenged to list three things that they are thankful for and re-post three new things for five days in a row. At the end of the five days, they are to nominate other friends to complete the five-day challenge.

Although sharing feelings of appreciation or value can occur on any day, sometimes it takes a nomination from a friend, or a national “holiday” to remind us to share those thoughts with others. The expression of personal emotions and feelings are often the most difficult to convey. Assumptions are made that the other party understands our feelings without ever discussing them. But as the quote at the top illustrates, having gratitude means nothing without sharing it with others.

So while it is important to personally remind ourselves of the things we feel grateful for, it is also important to share it. Writing a letter, posting to Facebook, or making a phone call are some of the ways to reach out to someone to say that you are grateful for them.

This Sunday, September 21st is the National Day of Gratitude. In what ways will you show your gratitude? Leave a message in the comments section to share your appreciation and gratefulness.

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It’s beginning to look a lot like fall….

rsz_young_couple_going_for_a_walk_outside_in_fall_folliage

Cooler temps forecast across parts of the country this week remind us that the fall season is approaching. Cooler nights, falling leaves and seasonal colors like orange and yellow are some of the trademarks of this festive time of year. Though some areas are still consumed by warm temperatures and strong sun rays, it is the time of year where the seasons start to evolve.

For those affected by the heat, fall is a welcomed time of the year that brings with it opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in a more comfortable manner. Sports activities, ball games, gardening and festive fall events are some ways to embrace the season’s change by spending time outside, and to perhaps ‘escape’ from hibernating methods used during the summer months when the unbearable heat was avoided.

Some look at the season change as a way to start new ventures, set new goals, or make plans for the rest of the year. New beginnings can create feelings of excitement and hope as new memories are made and added to those past. Though change can be difficult at times, it’s how you embrace it and make it work for you that matters. How the journey is spent experiencing something new is as important as the destination.

What are you looking forward to this fall?

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I have MS – Can I Still Get a Flu Vaccine?

rsz_young_woman_walking_dog_in_fall_folliage

Colorful foliage, the scent of pumpkin spice, football games…Ah, there are so many things to love about the cooler weather! Unfortunately, the approaching flu season is not one of them. Around this time of year and throughout the fall and winter seasons, we often encounter individuals with multiple sclerosis who wonder if they can still protect themselves from the influenza virus by getting a vaccine.

In most cases, “yes,” although anyone considering a flu shot should check with his or her doctor in advance. Also, if you have MS, you should first consider the following points before getting a flu vaccine:

Make sure you are getting the injected type of vaccine: Flu vaccines usually come in two forms – injected and intranasal. Because the intranasal variety contains a live rather than inactive virus, it is not recommended for people with MS. If considering a vaccine containing a live virus, please consult your doctor.

Consider whether you are currently having a relapse: People experiencing an MS relapse are often advised to wait a period of time before receiving a vaccine. Talk to your doctor to find out if this waiting period applies to you.

Talk to your physician first: Whether or not you are currently experiencing MS symptoms, it’s always important to consult with your physician before getting a vaccine. Discussing your plan with your doctor will ensure you are getting the right vaccination at the right time for you.

Want to learn more about MS and vaccinations? This information was adapted from MSAA’s July 2013 article, “Vaccine Safety and MS,” which was written by Susan Wells Courtney and reviewed by Jack Burks, MD, MSAA’s Chief Medical Officer.

No one wants to miss out on the fun of fall and winter because of the flu. But having MS doesn’t mean you can’t help protect yourself against influenza. For more information on preventing the flu, you can also read, “Angel’s Tips for the MS Community on Getting Prepared for Winter.”

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Summer Reflection

By: Matt Cavallo

For me, having MS sometimblog pices means more sleep. This is especially the case for me with two young boys, who don’t tend to sleep in and have endless amounts of energy. I find that when the seasons turn to fall and the long sunny days turn to long dark nights, I find myself chronically tired and needing to hibernate. When I feel like I need more sleep, I draw on lessons learned from the summer.

This June, my wife and I decided to drive to take the kids to Legoland in San Diego. San Diego is about a five hour drive from my house, so we loaded up the minivan and hit the road for a three day vacation. Prior to that vacation, I put it in my mind that it was going to be hot and that I was going to be waiting in long lines for the rides, but that I needed to give my kids a vacation to remember.

The first day took a lot out of me. The drive was exhausting. Even though the kids behaved and there was only a little traffic, driving that long can be taxing. However, once we got to the hotel, the kids wanted to play. Even though I was exhausted, we met up with friends and went to the beach. I spent the entire time at the beach playing in the water with the kids. After about twelve hours of going non-stop, we went to the hotel and I crashed.

The next morning came too early, but the kids were up and ready to go. I felt like if I could just get a little more sleep, I would have energy for Lego Land. More sleep was not to be had but we spent an awesome twelve hours running around the amusement park, going on the rides and playing the games. The sun was brutal and beat me down as I waited for ride after ride. By the time we got to bed, I was so exhausted that I didn’t think I could possibly pull it together another day.

The next day came and I needed just a little more sleep, but that was not going to happen. It was day two at Lego Land and the kids were ready. It was a repeat of the first day and the kids were having the time of their lives. We spent another twelve hours roaming the park being roasted in the early summer sun. By the time we got back to the hotel, I thought I was going to pass out from exhaustion, but the kids wanted to swim at the pool. So even though I had expended all my energy at the park, I needed to dig down and find the inspiration for one more hour of activities.

While I was sitting at the pool watching the boys swim, I thought that this is what life was all about. It turned out that I didn’t need more sleep. Sure I was tired and the sun and MS fatigue were wearing on me, but I needed to be there. At this moment, having MS meant time with my sons. So many times, I had let my MS fatigue get the best of me, but I fought through it to create memories that will last a lifetime.

As I look forward to the fall season and the long nights, I think back to that summer vacation. I look back at how I was fatigued and didn’t think I would make it, but created precious memories. For me it is all about getting going, because for me getting started is the hardest part. This fall, I am not going to require more sleep. I am going to spend more time with my sons, because that is what motivates me to keep going. What lessons from summer are you going to use to keep going this fall?

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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National Preparedness Month

September marks the observance of National Preparedness Month, a time when individuals are encouraged to make safety plans and preparations in case of emergencies, such as natural disasters, for the protection of themselves and family members.

Family standing outside house illustration

With the atypical weather conditions experienced throughout different parts of the country this year especially, like the harsh winter months and peculiar storms, it is important to have emergency plans in place to prepare for such conditions. Discussing strategies with your family members or neighbors can help to increase cohesiveness and coordination when planning for emergency situations. Individuals with disabilities should develop strategies that will accommodate personal needs in case of an emergency as well, including how to move within the household if the power were to go out and safe exit strategies if you need to evacuate the home.

Websites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and ready.gov provide information and materials for individuals to make plans and build safety kits for emergency preparedness.  Here are some additional tips to consider when creating emergency plans:

  • Develop a plan that is accommodating for everyone’s needs in the household. If someone has a disability, try to consider and incorporate those needs into emergency plans and evacuation strategies.
  • Ensure all household members are aware of the plans and what their role is in implementing them.
  • Stay informed about emergency preparedness by checking media and news sources often.

Increasing awareness of how to protect yourself and the ones you care for in an emergency can aid in making thoughtful and careful decisions in unexpected situations. Take this time to learn more about National Preparedness Month and educate others as well!

 

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Lessons from “Back to School”

For many families, September means back to school. Maybe you sent your child off for a first day of school (elementary, middle or high school each are a special moment), or maybe you are headed off to a class yourself as a college student, graduate student, teacher or professor. If none of these apply to you, then you at least see the back to school supplies and sales popping up everywhere as people make this transition.

If you are not a student or teacher, then once you leave school it can be easy to forget what a time of optimism and hope abounds at the beginning of the new school year. The hope to make new friends, achieve new academic goals, make the team, etc. is probably on the mind of all of those youngsters. Adult students may be invigorated by the goal of obtaining a successful career or the relief of having only one more year to go to finish toward a hard earned degree.

If you are not swept up in the “new year, new you” madness, take a moment. Remember that it doesn’t take classes to help you set goals or achieve outcomes. You don’t have to be in school to make new friends or have a plan of action. Sometimes, a spark of hope and optimism can help you to dream that big dream before your “first day,” and the hard work throughout the year is what helps you achieve your outcome.

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The Empowered Patient: Your Greatest Resource Lies Within

By: Jeri Burtchell

I remember feeling like I’d stepped through the looking glass that day in the hospital. My world became distorted and unreal as the words “you have multiple sclerosis” echoed in my brain. I couldn’t make sense of it; this couldn’t be happening. Suddenly my life as I knew it was over and I could either live in the past, or look to a new future.

It may have been over 15 years ago, but I haven’t forgotten that day. Anyone living with MS was once “newly diagnosed.” We’ve all been there.

So this month, in keeping with MSAA’s theme of finding resources, I’d like to introduce the newly diagnosed to what will become their greatest resource of all. It’s the mental approach we take toward living our best life despite MS. I’m talking about being an empowered patient.

The term “empowered patient” has no clear-cut definition, however it encompasses an overall set of characteristics that sets one apart from the average patient. Empowered patients take an active role in making health care decisions, learn all they can about their condition, compile resources, take notes, and strive to improve their own quality of life. There is no set way to accomplish this; each empowered patient discovers their own path.

For eight years after my diagnosis, I was anything but empowered. I felt helpless, overwhelmed, and despondent. My medication wasn’t working for me even though my doctor insisted it was. I had no idea I could get another opinion, and I trusted him when he said I needn’t try any other medicines.

Then one day my neurologist had a stroke. I was suddenly fighting my MS battle alone. That’s when my journey toward empowerment began. My first step was finding another doctor.

I’d never been very sick before MS, so doctor shopping was uncomfortable for me. I had my primary care doctor pick my new neurologist instead. (My path to empowerment began with baby steps.) It turned out the doctor he chose was the lead investigator for a clinical trial studying a pill for MS.

When I met with him we discussed the drug trial, weighing the risks and benefits. He also told me of all the other available options. Again I had to choose. I was terrified of making the wrong decision, and all of the medicines seemed so scary. But I was more afraid of not being on one of the drugs since my MS was so aggressive. I took home the paperwork to read up on the clinical trial. Three days later I took a huge leap. I decided to join.

Up until then I had been miserable, relapsing 3-4 times a year. Really big relapses that had me in a wheelchair, on a walker, or using two canes. The whole time I suffered, I never thought things could ever change. I thought I was destined to be miserable forever.

But the trial changed my life. I happened to get the real study drug and it worked so well for me, it would be another six years before I had a new relapse.

The positive outcome of my choices reinforced the importance of playing a more active role in my health care.

I learned all I could about my disease and took notes about what others found effective for treating the symptoms of MS. I questioned everything and sought to find the answers. As they say, knowledge is power.

But being an empowered patient isn’t just about making treatment decisions and getting second opinions, it’s also about owning your lifestyle choices, too. I took a long hard look at the things I could change. I gave up smoking and junk food and began exercising more. I saw real improvements. My goal is not just to live life, but to feel as good as I can at the same time.

But if giving your whole life a makeover seems like an impossible task, just take baby steps. Find one thing you can do that positively impacts your health and focus on it. If you need help, reach out for support.

Becoming an empowered patient doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that evolves over time.

So if you’re newly diagnosed and feeling overwhelmed, don’t despair. Know that there is an ebb and flow to relapsing MS and if you feel bad now, there are better times ahead. Focus on learning all you can and actively participate in your treatment decisions. If you don’t like your doctor, find another one. Don’t wait for them to have a stroke before you start thinking for yourself.

You’ll find that being your own advocate might be your greatest resource of all.

*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.

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Assistive Technology for Individuals with MS

Over the course of years living with a disease such as MS, there may come a time when more assistance is needed to complete daily activities. Perhaps typing on the computer is becoming a challenge due to spasticity, or driving a vehicle has become difficult because of numbness in the leg. While it may not always be conducive to ask another person for help, perhaps a piece of equipment can aid in getting the task done more effectively. Assistive technology, or AT, is any item, piece of equipment, or software that is used to increase or improve the functional abilities of individuals with disabilities at school, work, home, and in the community.

Young woman with tablet computer and coffee

Assistive technology devices can assist those who may have difficulty with speech, typing, writing, cognition, walking, etc. In each state, a State Assistive Technology Project is available to provide information on assistive  technology and consultation about the type of technology piece that may be helpful. A borrowing program may also be available where the devices can be borrowed for up to a certain period of time to see if the device will be effective. Information about available loans to help with more expensive devices can be discussed as well.

In trying to determine the type of device that may be helpful for a specific need, working with a rehabilitation professional such as a physical or occupational therapist might help to clarify the type of device that would provide the best assistance. They can make specific recommendations of devices that can assist with a variety of needs and may also help with checking whether insurance will cover the item recommended.

What assistive devices have you used? What avenue did you take to receive the device?

 

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Disclosing MS at Work – Community Experience

Since MSAA first partnered with the MultipleSclerosis.net staff, we have consistently been impressed with their willingness to share in our mission of improving lives today. We are pleased to have them as a regular contributor to our blog MS Conversations.

The majority of people who have MS are diagnosed when they are between 20 and 50 years of age. Because this coincides with the time when a person is most likely to be a part of the work force, people who have MS often have to consider their condition when making work-related decisions. Upon receiving an MS diagnosis, one of the biggest decisions they make may be whether or not to share this information with their employer and/or colleagues. While some people choose to be private when it comes to their MS, others may decide to be an “open book.” One of our patient advocates shared his experience about telling his employer and colleagues about his MS, and many of our community members shared their stories in response. We also asked our Facebook community members to share their experiences with us, and as you can see, people have very different stories to tell.

I’m hesitant to tell my employer and colleagues about my MS

  • Sometimes I will say I have a ‘neurological condition’ but I don’t go beyond that.
  • My experience is that most employers don’t want to hire a person with a condition that will increase insurance premiums. I would never tell an employer or future employer I have MS.
  • I think if I disclose my MS at work, I might lose my job. I can’t even work from home one day when I don’t feel well. I’m expected to be alert, healthy, and on top of my game. I feel like no one cares. As much as people can be compassionate, it is only to a degree. I need to be present, and I’m expected to perform. So, I play my role and I smile through pain and tears and I do my job. I don’t have much choice.

I had to make adjustments due to my MS

  • I had to disclose my MS because it could have become a safety issue at work, so my responsibilities needed to be adjusted accordingly.
  • I could no longer be productive and I became a danger to the public and myself. My employer knew before I did that I was having trouble. I drove an 18-wheel truck and set up POS networks. I just could not do the work anymore. Some of my employer’s family members had MS. The truth is I loved my work I had to come to grips with the fact that I just could not do it anymore. It’s important to be truthful to yourself about your capabilities at your job and then make a decision.
  • I had to go part-time instead of full-time three years after being diagnosed because of my symptoms and a number of relapses. However, I’m still trying to “stick it out” and remain employed because I find it quite fulfilling; if I don’t work, I get bored way too easily.

I wish I hadn’t said anything

  • Despite it being a private matter, even with HIPAA laws, word spread fast about my diagnosis at my work and people immediately started treating me differently.
  • When I told my employer, his response was dismissive, as if to say, “and what do you want me to do?”
  • My employer lacks compassion. Unfortunately, a few of my coworkers went out of their way to make it even more difficult for me.
  • I was essentially forced to leave, and I was then denied long-term disability benefits through my employer. Thankfully, I hired an attorney and eventually won.
  • I lost my job when my employer found out.
  • I lost my job of many years shortly after I was diagnosed in the 90s. Of course, they didn’t say my illness was the reason behind losing my job, but it was obvious to me. It was heartbreaking to lose a loved career after working so hard for so long.
  • I shared during my original interview to explain why I had balance issues. When a full-time position later became available, I applied and was told that they would not award me the position due to my MS. My boss said that if I became unable to work, they’d have no one to cover the additional hours. Although I sort of understood, it was blatant discrimination, and I reported it. My boss lied, saying she had never said that. I am still working there, as it is a job that I love with hours I am capable of handling.

Sharing my MS diagnosis was a positive experience

  • My boss is understanding, even though I can’t do everything I used to do.
  • My employer and coworkers have been very kind and understanding. It’s actually harder for me to tell people about my MS on dates than it was when I told my employer.
  • I’m glad I came “out.” My coworkers are very respectful, and I found out my boss’ wife also has MS.
  • Had I not told my employer what was going on, I would have missed out on being connected with the best MS specialist in my area. My boss happens to have connections who were able to get me in with my doctor, who was not accepting new patients at the time. Telling my employer was the best thing I ever did! Also, it is my personality to be very open, so it was never even a question in my mind. I do realize though, that in other positions, it might not have been the same situation, and I might have kept it under wraps if I knew it might mean keeping my job or not.

It’s important to note that there are employment discrimination laws in place in the US to protect you, particularly through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A legal resource such as the State Office of Protection and Advocacy, The Job Accommodation Network, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may also be able to assist in helping an individual to determine what rights they have regarding disclosure, workplace accommodations, and/ or determining whether discrimination may have occurred after a disclosure is made. It is unfortunate that some people have had negative experiences when sharing their MS story with employers and/or colleagues. One can hope that this will improve over time, especially with an increasing awareness of MS.

Have you told your employer that you have MS? What was your experience? What advice would you give someone with MS (or any other chronic condition) regarding disclosing this information?

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