BRISTOL, Conn. – Although she had every reason to engage in self-pity, Brian Peters, 27, doesn’t remember his mother ever complaining. He doesn’t even recall even hearing much about the challenges and obstacles she faced throughout his childhood. Yes, Brian remembers seeing her at times struggle to get up the stairs of their Bristol home; and then there were those doctor visits and medicines bottles – lots of them. However, at the time Brian wasn’t overly distraught, mostly because, “Mom just never made a big deal about it.”
“It never seemed to be a topic of conversation,” said Brian, who was just 7 years old when his mother, Roberta, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating disease. “My mom was always a hard worker. And she kept the cards close to the vest. I don’t think she wanted us to worry.”
Roberta and her husband, Chip, met at Bristol High School when they were both 15 years old. It was puppy love at first sight. As is often the case, infatuation developed into deep love. The pair went on to marry and later, have a family. Chip was a lineman for a local telephone company. Roberta helped the growing family stay afloat by working part-time as an optician.
“I loved my job,” remembered Roberta, 55, who, by the time she was diagnosed, had three children, Brian being the eldest. “I was making good money and working in town, not far from home.”
In 1994, a year after the birth of her youngest child, Roberta began to notice that she had numbness and tingling in the tips of her fingers and, a few days later, her toes also. Her hands seemed to be a little shaky. When her eyesight began to blur, she knew something was wrong. She called her doctor. However, before she could even get to her appointment, her balance was affected. After some preliminary questions followed by a routine physical, Roberta’s doctor ordered an MRI of her brain.
“I remember my father holding me steady as I tried to walk to the MRI room,” said Roberta, then barely able to walk without support. “I was stunned when I was told I had multiple sclerosis. Never having heard of multiple sclerosis, I responded, ‘Alright, then give me the cure.’ I was speechless when he told me there was no cure.”
More than 6,000 Connecticut residents, like Roberta, live with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease affecting the central nervous system. Symptoms can include, among other things, numbness in the limbs, difficulties with vision and speech, stiffness, loss of mobility, and, in some more severe cases, total paralysis. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot be predicted.
With three children at home, one a year old and still in diapers, there was little time to wallow in self-pity. It was 1994 and the first drug to treat MS had just made its debut. However, there was a waiting list and Roberta had to hang on for more than seven months receiving treatment to slow the progression of her illness. In the meantime, she had a family to think about.
“Every morning I’d get up and get my husband off to work and the children off to school,” said Roberta, who 10 years after her diagnosis of MS learned she also had breast cancer. “I would then take care of one chore; maybe laundry on Monday, vacuuming on Tuesday, a bathroom on Wednesday and so on and so on. After I had completed a project, I would take a nap so I would be rested for the children when they got home from school. No matter how difficult the day, supper was on the table at 5 o’clock.”
Pacing herself throughout the day helped with managing the symptoms of MS. However, an exacerbation of her symptoms just could not be stopped. With each exacerbation, Roberta’s ongoing symptoms worsened a little more. By 1996, Roberta was forced to leave her part-time job.
“As an optician I needed steady hands,” said Roberta. “I measured our clients’ pupils by millimeters. My MS caused tremors in my hands. I just couldn’t do the intricate work necessary for the job. It was difficult when I had to leave.”
Roberta credits Chip and the kids with helping her stay connected to life even when she was losing more and more ability. Eventually, the children took on additional responsibilities, including doing their own laundry or cleaning a bathroom. The youngest, Kenneth, would help serve the meals. Brian and his sister, Samantha, would wash the dinner dishes. Chip pitched in to make a meal on a weekend or they would call out for a pizza. Every bit helped.
“I was devastated when I first learned Roberta had MS,” said Chip, a onetime rock and roll band member who shaved off his “cherished” long locks when Roberta had lost her own from chemo. “I read everything I could get my hands on. I needed to support her. I needed to be there for the kids. I wanted to do everything I could to keep the ship from sinking. We were in this together – for the long haul.”
This year the couple is celebrating 30 years of marriage. The close-knit family has always been there to support one another. Throughout their lives, in honor of their mother, the kids have participated in benefit walks and other charity events.
Brian, who graduated with a business degree from Central Connecticut State University, is now a team leader at Sports Authority, in Farmington. When his store manager, Donald Pallanck, announced they were teaming up with the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter, to support its Halloween-themed 5K run, Brian was immediately on-board. In fact, he went the extra mile, signing on to join a Run MS fundraising team, Jacq B Nimble, Jacq B Quick.
“I want to do anything I can to support the cause,” said Brian, having recently helped to raise awareness by speaking on-air with Renee DiNino, host of The River 105.9 FM. “If it means putting on running shoes, dressing in a costume and raising a little money for MS, it’s okay – I’m all-in.”
Sports Authority, located on the West Harford-Farmington town line, will host a Run MS pre-registration and bib packet pick-up party Friday, Oct. 25, from 3 to 7 p.m. Parents are encouraged to bring their children in costume to trick-or-treat at candy stations situated throughout the store. Everyone who pre-registers for Run MS in-store or online and picks up their bib packet at Sports Authority on Oct. 25 will be entered to win a $150 Sports Authority gift card. The winner will be announced at the next day’s Run MS finish line celebration. Sports Authority associates will also hand out money saving coupons for store merchandise.
The 2013 Run MS, A Spooktacular 5K, takes place Saturday, Oct. 26, at Rentschler Field, in East Hartford, and includes a one-mile Family Fun Stroll. Check-in begins at 8 a.m. The run begins at 9 a.m. The fun features men and women’s timed divisions, costume contest, cash prizes, free samples, music, refreshments and a finish line party. The first 200 participants to register will receive a free commemorative Run MS tee-shirt. There is a $30 per person registration fee through Oct. 25. There is a $35 registration fee on race day, Oct. 26. There is a $5 per person fee for participating in the Family Fun Stroll, which includes candy giveaways and drawings for prizes.
“Multiple sclerosis has robbed me of the ability to just go out and enjoy life,” said Roberta, with a deep sigh. “I miss doing even the basics – a walk in the park, grocery shopping for my family, planting flowers in my yard. I’m grateful to everyone supporting the cause, most especially my family. I’m so proud of Brian for all he’s doing to raise awareness and funds.”
For more information on the Sports Authority West Hartford pre-registration and bib packet pick-up, call Michael Branda, National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter, development manager, at 860-913-2550. To register for Run MS, A Spooktacular 5K, visit www.ctfightsMS.org.