LYME, Conn. – Kathy Smith traveled thousands of miles, leaving England in 1989 to continue her career in in the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. She looked forward to building a new life in what many say is the land of opportunity.
Smith, 52 eventually signed on with Pfizer, Inc., based in Groton. There she met her husband, Andrew Seddon, a biochemist and research director, also from England. The couple settled in Lyme.
“Life couldn’t have been better,” remembered Smith, who was at the time an avid runner. “Everything seemed to be falling into place nicely.”
One day in 2004, Smith returned home from her usual run. The weather was brisk and cold that day. Several hours later, while at work, she felt numbness and tingling travel down the right side of her body. At first she thought the odd sensation was due to her earlier run.
“As the week progressed, so did the numbness and tingling,” said Smith. “Eventually, I lost all motor function in my right leg.”
Smith made an emergency appointment with her doctor.
“He was concerned and wanted to make sure I hadn’t had a stroke,” said Smith. “I was sent for an x-ray and a CAT scan, but they came back fine. I was then sent to the hospital emergency department to get an MRI scan.”
While she was lying on a gurney in the hallway, the on-site neurologist stopped by.
“I believe you have multiple sclerosis,” he said out loud, before casually sauntering off.
Smith and Seddon were stunned. Nothing had prepared them for such news. With their combined backgrounds in scientific research they both understood too well the implications of such a diagnosis and what it might mean for their lives together.
“As a child I had seen firsthand the worst of MS,” said Seddon, whose father’s friend was confined to a wheelchair as a result of the progressive effects of multiple sclerosis. “My thoughts were inundated with visions from the past. But I knew we were in this together. There was never a doubt that we would do whatever we needed to do, together.”
More than 6,000 Connecticut residents live with multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms can include, among other things, numbness and tingling in the extremities, difficulties with vision and speech, stiffness in the limbs, and in extreme cases, complete paralysis. There currently is no cure for multiple sclerosis, and statistics reveal women are two times more likely than men, to be diagnosed with MS.
After a few days in the hospital and treatment with steroids, Smith’s symptoms disappeared. She returned to work, not saying a word to anyone about the experience or the suspected diagnosis.
“I was in denial,” said Smith. “I didn’t want to believe I had a disease for which there is no cure. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I was so afraid of what it might do to my future career prospects. I was being cagy with my co-workers, and maybe, even cagey with myself.”
Seddon didn’t like keeping Smith’s illness a secret.
“It felt like we were carrying a huge burden,” he said. “I felt that it would be better for Kathy if she could relieve herself of the heavy emotional baggage.”
A year later, Smith’s symptoms returned. After another MRI scan, she was officially diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Smith then decided to take the reins, finding a neurologist at a teaching hospital specializing in treating MS and “coming out, so to speak.”
“I also chose to get involved in the cause,” said Smith, who today serves on the society’s MS Research Advocacy Committee. “I decided to start volunteering and then later, to start fundraising.”
Smith and her team registered to participate in Challenge Walk MS, a three-day, 50-mile walk on Cape Cod, Mass. A onetime marathon runner, walking 50 miles over the course of three days seemed like a challenge for which she could tackle – even with MS.
“Having been a marathon runner when I was younger, I liked the idea of a real physical challenge,” she said. “The first year, it was just Andrew and me. We didn’t know what to expect, but we had a great time and vowed to come back. The second year, we recruited our two daughters; we named our team the Lyme Limeys, a tribute to our dual heritage.”
Last year, the Lyme Limeys raised $14,000 to support the fight against MS. In total, the team has raised nearly $25,000. This year, as the team grows in numbers and strength, she hopes to raise even more.
Funds raised through National MS Society events, such as Challenge Walk MS, ensure ongoing scientific research to find better treatments and a cure. Funds also provide for vital programs and services offered by the society to people living with multiple sclerosis.
Smith will step out again this year with a slightly larger team, adding three friends to the crew. She has renamed her team, Feet 2 Defeat MS.
“For the most part, I am symptom-free,” said Smith, who in her role on the research advocacy committee travels the state sharing breaking news on the research front. “I feel fortunate that I am able to take part in something like Challenge Walk MS. It’s a very special event. People are welcoming and friendly. It’s so good to be around others who understand what it means to have multiple sclerosis. I do believe science is moving closer to a cure, and I want to be a part of funding research to make that happen faster.” Smith, who today runs her own healthcare consulting business, has a bit of advice for those with MS sitting on the sideline. “Just do it!” she said. “You have to experience the feelings of accomplishment and camaraderie. It’s empowering to engage in the cause.”
The 2013 Challenge Walk MS takes place Friday, Sept. 6, through Sunday, Sept. 8. This year participants can opt to walk 50 miles over three days or 50 kilometers over two days. There is a $75 registration fee and $1,500 fundraising minimum.
For more information on the 2013 Challenge Walk MS on Cape Cod on Friday, Sept. 6, through Sunday, Sept. 8, visit www.ctfightsMS.org. For more information on the Irish Bulldogs Challenge Walk MS team or to donate, visit www.ctfightsMS.org.