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.

Share

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?

 

Share

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?

Share

Mining the Web for MS Resources

By: Matt Cavallo 

**Disclaimer: For any new or worsening MS symptoms, please contact your doctor immediately**

The internet is full of good (and not so good) information about multiple sclerosis. There are trusted sources, personal blogs, and social support groups regarding MS. Like everything else in life, when seeking more information about the disease, you must consider the source. The following blog will discuss some online traps that I have fallen into and how to avoid them.

In my mind, a good site for healthcare information should never promise a miracle or solicit patients for money. For example, I was following a very compelling Facebook thread posted in an MS support group linking to the story of a patient. I’m a sucker for a good story, so I started reading about this person and how they overcame all of their MS symptoms. At the bottom of the page, there was a link to their “miracle treatment,” and it brought me to a multi-level marketing website ad for some vitamins.

They drove me to the site with a good story, but their promise of a cure for MS was way off base. Multiple sclerosis is a chronic condition with no known cure, so to promise the people who click on this website a cure is false advertising. Be skeptical of buying any supplement that is either not prescribed to you by your doctor or that you have not discussed with your doctor prior to purchasing. This goes for assistive devices, as well. Before considering any assistive devices, contact your doctor or insurance company to see if the device is approved. You may get an idea from a website, but by going through your doctor and insurance company, you may find that the device, or a similar device, is covered.

As for trusted information, my favorite site is MSAA. In fact I like them so much, I am a contributing blogger for them. I found MSAA because I was looking for educational material to help explain MS to my young boys. What I found was a free picture book that I read to my boys that helped explain daddy’s condition. I found other resources, like their online Relapse Center. Every resource on the MSAA website is evidenced-based and peer- reviewed, so I know that the information is coming from a reliable source.

Another source for MS information that I trust is Healthine.com. Healthline takes complicated medical terms associated with MS and other chronic illnesses and puts them into slideshow format in words that are easy to understand. They also have great weekly columns from fellow MSAA blogger Jeri Burtchell and provide links to MS resources. MSAA and Healthline are my two personal favorite websites to find objective, clinically reviewed information about MS.

Social media is also a great place to find MS support groups and information about the disease. I belong to several social media support groups where members interact online. If you are going to engage in these activities, you must keep in mind personal biases. Participate in an online support group for support, but not for medical advice. These groups are great when you are having a bad day and want validation from your fellow MSers, but I have also seen solicitations or treatment recommendations based upon personal bias. Remember, you and your doctor should make all treatment decisions together, and what you read in an online forum may not be entirely accurate.

The internet is a great place to mine MS resources. There are trusted sources, like MSAA and Healthline, great personal MS blogs, and social media support groups. Just remember to be aware that some of these sites may be trying to solicit, not support you. Any research-based article will say something to the effect of “clinically reviewed” or have a clinical reviewer in the credits. Any website that promises you a cure is a red flag to stay away.

As a person living with MS, the best thing you can do is educate yourself to the disease and others’ experiences living with the disease. The internet is a great place to find resources, but make sure that you can trust the source. Let me know if you come across a good MS site that I haven’t mentioned. Happy mining!

MS Web Resources:
MSAA – http://www.mymsaa.org/
MSAA Relapse Resource Center – http://relapses.mymsaa.org/
Healthline Multiple Sclerosis Center - http://www.healthline.com/health/multiple-sclerosis

*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/

Share

It’s all relative.

rsz_african-american_female_doctor_counseling_distressed_young_female_patient

Sometimes it may seem like things are spiraling. Maybe the bills are piling up, the stress level in managing home life or work is rising, and you are worried that you are headed for an MS Relapse if you keep going at your current pace. When things feel like they are outside of your control, it is easy to “cycle”  or consistently think of the negative aspects of what is going on. The whirlwind of negativity can affect not only your mood and health, but also your relationships and ability to accurately read cues from others and be empathetic.

When your co-worker is acting totally checked out and you are annoyed that she hasn’t helped you with a joint project, you might think she is acting uncaring, but maybe she didn’t tell you her brother is very sick in the hospital. When the dentist office calls for the third time to cancel your appointment and you just feel like screaming at the scheduler, you may not know that she is stressed out because other office staff keep flaking out on their scheduled appointments and making her job harder.

Yes, it is okay to have a bad day or a bad week. It is okay to not put on a “fake it ’till you make it” smile when you feel like nobody understands what you are dealing with, but when you start to get caught up in the negativity tornado and are on the borderline of snapping, remember that everyone is dealing with something. Yes, some of those “somethings” are more manageable than others, but they all impact and make a difference in the lives of the people living them. Focusing on the idea that everyone is living their own journey with different successes and challenges can help us to maintain balance; we are not alone for the ride. When things start to spiral, try to remember that everything is relative.

Share

Identifying Community Resources for Individuals with MS

Working on the MSAA Helpline, we receive a wide array of calls asking for assistance locally within the community. Whether it is for in-home services, help with transportation, or housing assistance, the Helpline specialists work with the client to find a local group that can be of assistance. While it is challenging to find an MS-specific organization in the area, there are some local organizations designed to assist those living with a disability to keep them living independently in their homes.

One of the more common programs Helpline Specialists refer to is the Centers for Independent Living. These non-profit centers are consumer-controlled and located right in the community or surrounding area. These centers are staffed by individuals with disabilities and provide a variety of independent living services.

Fifty-one percent of staff, as well as the Board of Directors, within the Centers for Independent Living are individuals with disabilities. These centers provide four core services: information & referral, independent living skills training, individual and systems advocacy, and peer counseling.

While not MS-specific, the Centers for Independent Living understand the challenges faced when living with a disability and can make suggestions or provide direct programming to improve the quality of life of those living within their regions.

Search for your local Center for Independent Living and reach out to learn about the opportunities and assistance that may be available to you and your family. It can be challenging to reach out for help and support, especially if you are not quite sure of the need you may have. Start by talking with one of the peer counselors or support persons; in talking with them, you both may be able to clearly define some of the needs you may be having.

Have you reached out to community resources in the past? In which ways were they helpful to you?

Share

Communicating Effectively with MS

By: Matt Cavallo

One barrier to accepting that you are now a person living with multiple sclerosis is communication. When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it seemed that every conversation I had ended up being about my MS. Whether it was family, friends or co-workers, inevitably during the conversation the person I was talking to would pause and ask, “So, how do you feel? You look great.”

While these conversations were well-intentioned, no one picked up on the fact that I didn’t want to talk about my disease. All I wanted was to do was have regular conversations about sports, work or the weather. The kind of conversations we would have before I was diagnosed. More and more I found myself avoiding conversations rather than reliving my diagnosis over and over again.

This was causing a tremendous amount of stress in my life and that stress was affecting all the relationships in my life. Whether it was at work, friends, family or my wife, all these relationships were suffering as a result of the breakdown in communication. I then realized that I wasn’t going to be able to control the way the people talked to me about my disease. If I wanted to end the stress of talking to people about MS, I was either going to have to cut everyone out of my life or change how I communicated my illness.

For me, change does not come easy. One of my 7 Steps to Living Well with a Chronic Illness, is Learning to Communicate Effectively. I believe that when you are diagnosed with a chronic illness, like MS, you go through five stages of grieving: denial, anger, fear, grief and finally, acceptance. Learning how to communicate effectively is what helped me go through these stages. Instead of losing relationships because of my MS I started to make changes that allowed me to accept my MS.

Excerpt from 7 Steps to Living Well with a Chronic Illness
Rediscovering My Purposematt blog

I remember sitting in my doctor’s office in the spring on 2007. I had previously shared with her a draft of my memoir, The Dog Story: A Journey into a New Life with Multiple Sclerosis. She loved the passion in which I describe my writing. She said that I had an articulate, succinct way of telling my patient experience story. She also said that there was an opportunity to share my story at an upcoming patient support group meeting. Without thinking about it, I agreed to speak at the meeting.

Then on my way home, a rush of anxiety and fear overwhelmed me. What had I agreed to? I had never given a speech. I didn’t know what to say or where to start. When I got home, I talked to Jocelyn about the upcoming speech. Given all that I had been through with my disease process, she thought that it would be good for me to attend the support group in general. She also thought that I would be good as a speaker. I was skeptical…

… I put on a blue blazer, a button down white shirt, a pair of jeans and some blue tennis shoes. My cousin came with me to film the event. As we drove, the butterflies started to mount in my stomach. I walked into the hotel lobby and followed the signs to the meeting room for the support group.

In an instant I had forgotten everything that I was going to say. I started sweating and paused for what seemed like an eternity. All eyes were on me and the projector beam was like a white hot piercing spotlight in an interrogation room. The doctor introduced me and I walked to the front of the room, raised my right hand and waved.

“Good afternoon everyone!”

I collected myself and began again. Eventually I started to feel my rhythm. The sweat was no longer pouring and I found my confidence and timing. The crowd even erupted with laughter when I interjected a joke. I was surprised. It was a subtle joke, but they got it. When that happened, the words started rolling off my tongue and I told my story better than I ever had rehearsed it. The audience loved it. Everyone came up to me afterwards and said how much my talk meant to them. I was touched.

Looking back, standing up in front of that crowd and sharing my story changed the way I felt about communicating my MS. Up until that point, I was not comfortable talking about MS at all. And it wasn’t because I was sharing my story in a front of a room full of people that caused the change in me. It was everyone in the audience who shared their story with me after the talk that helped me understand that I wasn’t alone. People shared similar experiences and how hard it was to talk about their illness. Since that day, I have made it my mission to spread the word about living with MS.

If you are going through difficulty with you MS or having a hard time accepting your diagnosis, it is OK. You are not alone. Learning to communicate your story of living with MS will help you in accepting your condition. Once you learn how to effectively communicate your story with MS you will find that you are not alone and that you really do look great!

*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/

Share

Change and the Impacts on Your “Self” When You Have MS

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
-John F. Kennedy

By definition, the word change means to make or become different. But in what ways do we change? When I reflect on my life, I don’t think of my current self as any different from my past self. Certainly I have learned from my mistakes and have adapted, but I still think of myself as the same person I was many years ago. Maybe my taste in music or my physical appearance has changed, but morally and ethically I don’t think I have changed much.

Sometimes a chronic illness like MS may impact an individual’s views of themselves. By focusing only on the past and how MS may be impacting the present, like John F. Kennedy stated, you may “miss the future.”

I think that this quote is pretty powerful and allows for the opportunity to really think of who we are and what attributes of our “self” we consider important. In certain ways, all people may change over time, but focusing on the positive attributes of your life allows you to honor them and your sense of “self” and will guide you into the future.

What parts of your self have remained un-changed? In what ways are you honoring your self?

 

Share

Getting Graphic When You Have Multiple Sclerosis

Young couple looking distressed or angry

Sometimes when you try to communicate with others, your point may be misconstrued, or something may be lost in translation, or you feel that no matter what you are saying the other person just doesn’t “get it.”

In my role here at MSAA, I have heard from many people who are frustrated or disappointed that someone close to them, be it a family member, a friend, or even a close co-worker (someone who they know cares about them), just doesn’t “get” MS. They may not understand the daily or even hourly ups and downs of MS, or the invisible or hidden symptoms you are trying your utmost to manage, or maybe it’s just an expectation that everything should be the same as before your diagnosis, when for you it feels like the whole world has shifted.

No one wants to feel that our friends, family, and supporters are clueless, unhelpful, or uncaring…after all you KNOW they care about you, and that’s why you include them and want them to be a part of your life, and that’s why it feels so wrong when you can’t express your needs or they don’t seem to “get” what it is you are dealing with, or struggling with, or needing.

When words aren’t enough, get graphic…and not in the style of an R-rated movie, but instead embracing that sometimes a photograph, picture, or artwork can help support what you are saying. Even a visualization can sometimes be helpful, for example, “Sarah, I know that you are trying to help, but when you say that it makes me feel like you’re asking me to put a bag with a smiley face on my head…can you picture that? ” If you picture it, a person with a smiley face bag is being asked to hide their true emotions, or even if they express those emotions they cannot be seen by others. Sarah may picture that bag the next time she wants you to turn your frown upside down and be more empathetic to your needs.

So, the next time you feel like words are just not enough: snap a photo of how you are feeling, draw a picture of your thoughts, or give a visual depiction of your concerns. You may find that a visual display is sometimes the bridge that is needed to help your support person really “get it.”

Share

6 Ways to Support the Multiple Sclerosis Community

Looking for some creative ways to support individuals living with multiple sclerosis (MS)? In the following list, we’ll show you six different ways you can help MSAA improve lives today—without breaking the bank.

AmazonSmile

1. AmazonSmile— AmazonSmile is a great way to support the multiple sclerosis community without spending extra money. Simply select the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America as your charity of choice, and Amazon will donate 0.5% of the price of your eligible purchase to MSAA! Click here to learn more or to make a purchase.

ebay-giving-works

2. eBay Giving Works— Do you have some things lying around the house that you’d love to sell on eBay? If so, you can choose to donate a portion of your sales to MSAA. Visit eBay’s Giving Works website to learn more.

3. Counter Punch Wine— Calling all wine lovers! Purchase wine bottles by using MSAA’s promotional code and receive a 10% discount! The best part? MSAA will also receive 10% of your purchase—helping us to continue improving lives today for people living with MS. Please visit www.counterpunchwines.com and enter the promo code: MSAA

msaa_dog_tshirt

4. CafePress— Get all your MSAA and Swim for MS swag here. Everything from bags and water bottles to t-shirts and bracelets make great gifts. Check out the full inventory.

*We’re sure you’ll love our shirts, but we can’t promise you’ll look this cute wearing them.

5. PuraVida Bracelets— Help us raise awareness of multiple sclerosis by purchasing an MSAA bracelet from PuraVida. $1 of each bracelet purchased will go directly to MSAA. Visit PuraVida’s site to learn more.

6. Host a Pool Party—  Now that summer’s here, invite your friends and family to the pool and have a Swim for MS themed pool party! Provide games, snacks, music, and ask for donations at the door. Your only pool party requirements for this easy event are fun & sun! Email swim@mymsaa.org to start planning your event.

rsz_awp_2012-missyfranklin-7816

However you choose to show your support for the MS community, MSAA would like to wish you and yours a safe and enjoyable summer. If you or a loved one struggle with MS symptoms during the summer heat, please visit our website to learn more about MSAA’s Cooling Program or call MSAA’s Helpline at (800) 532-7667 ext. 154.

Share