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Sisters Take on the Challenge of a Lifetime

BY KERRY MCKENZIE

Family is at the heart of everything that sisters Bonnie and Karen do. But their family is a little bigger than, as Karen describes it, their “big, Catholic, South Jersey family.” Family to them means friends, donors, supporters and fellow Challenge Walkers.
 
KAREN, AT CHALLENGE WALK MS IN 2015
KAREN, AT CHALLENGE WALK MS IN 2015

When Bonnie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002, Karen, who lives in Tennessee, said, “It was like somebody had punched me in the stomach.”
 
She was afraid that the disease would change her vibrant, active and energetic older sister.
 
Bonnie, who lives in a small South Jersey town, had been experiencing symptoms for a while but had a difficult time getting a diagnosis. Two different doctors told her told her she was imagining all of her symptoms.
 
“They told me it wasn’t MS,” she said. “But luckily my husband believed me.”
 
And so did her gastroenterologist. He recommended she go to a neurologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. And that’s where she received her diagnosis of MS.
 
“It was scary not knowing where the future was going to take me,” Bonnie said. “Am I going to end up in a wheelchair?”
 
Her children and grandchildren were terrified. So were her brothers and sisters. They didn’t know how to deal with it at first. Her husband, on the other hand, was almost glad because they finally had a reason for how she was feeling.
 
From her diagnosis in 2002 until 2008, Bonnie and her family dealt with the disease on their own. But all that changed when Bonnie called her local MS Society office and found out about Challenge Walk MS. After she signed up, her sister Karen did the same.
 
Challenge Walk MS is a two-day, 30 mile trek that raises money for MS. Three years ago, the Greater Delaware Valley Chapter started traveling down to Maryland’s scenic Chesapeake Bay for the event. The weekend begins on Saturday with a stroll through the historic Eastern Shore. Walkers take in the breathtaking views at each rest stop along the route. The day is then capped with a celebration — a candlelight ceremony where people share stories and embrace everyone living with MS. On Sunday, walkers travel the last miles through St. Michael’s beautiful downtown and historic sites, finishing to cheering volunteers, family and friends.
 
“I love the camaraderie. The stories are always…” Bonnie paused, and thought about how to explain the experience. “Well, the stories aren’t always uplifting. But they always make you feel. And you’re feeling for other people and caring about what’s happening with them. I think that’s the biggest part.”
 
For Karen, the weekend is mostly about showing support for her older sister. Karen and Bonnie have a friendly, though sometimes heated fundraising competition.
 
“Bonnie had beat me every year,” Karen said. But in 2014, the night before the event, Karen was actually winning. Then, Bonnie secured a donation at the last minute and pulled ahead of her sister.
 
“After that, I vowed that Bonnie would never beat me again."

BONNIE CELEBRATES AT THE FINISH LINE
BONNIE CELEBRATES AT THE FINISH LINE

In 2015, Karen made good on that promise and raised more money than Bonnie for the first time. A lot of that fundraising came from selling pizzas every Wednesday at the Moose Lodge in her home town.
 
Bonnie doesn’t think it will last though.
 
“I’m way ahead of her this year,” she said, confidently. But she added. “She works hard for me, she really does. She’s a good little sister.”
 
Fourteen years after her diagnosis, Bonnie’s MS has stayed mostly in check. Now in her 60’s, Bonnie stays very active. She exercises regularly, walks to keep up her training for Challenge Walk MS, and has even maintained her skiing hobby. On top of it all, Bonnie is a substitute teacher at a local middle school where she usually works three days a week. All of that activity keeps her sharp, and she has no plans to slow down.
 
“I figure if I keep moving,” she said, “I can just keep going.”
 
Bonnie and Karen will be at it again this year at Challenge Walk MS in Easton, Maryland on September 10-11. For more information on Challenge Walk MS and – other fundraising events, go to moveforMS.org.

This article was originally published in the MS Connection Newsletter - 2016 Issue 2.
 
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