May 28, 2013
As a tennis instructor to aspiring kids throughout the Kansas City area, Anthony Perkins, 32, prides himself on leading by example. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007, he hopes to continue to be their role model as he prepares for the battle of his life.
As Junior Director of Tennis at Midtown Athletic Club in Overland Park, the enthusiastic instructor from the UK has forged a career of introducing younger players to the game. Perkins’ role includes coordinating Midtown’s popular “10 and Under Tennis” program, which has quickly gained the attention of the United States Tennis Association (USTA). His hard work was recognized last year by USTA’s Heart of America District within the Missouri Valley Section, which named him “10 and under Provider of the Year.”
Little did anyone know, however, Perkins had been quietly concealing his medical condition for nearly six years. Better known as MS, multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease that slowly damages the fatty myelin sheaths around the axons of the brain and spinal cord. Diagnosed mostly in young adults, the disease eventually progresses to a stage of physical and cognitive disability.
For Anthony, the symptoms started innocently with some unexpected leg numbness.
“I was in Des Moines, and it happened right on the tennis court,” he begins. “I remember having a big headache the night before. When I woke up, I felt my left leg tingling. I thought to myself, ‘I probably just slept on it wrong.’”
Doctors say this numbness or lack of feeling can be the first warning sign.
“The next Sunday,” Perkins continues, “I had the same headache, and went out on the court. I remember feeling very weird. That’s when the left side of my face froze up.”
What Perkins experienced was Clinically Isolated Syndrome (CIS), the first neurologic episode of inflammation and the demyelination of nerves in the central nervous system. After administering an MRI and spinal test, neurologists formally diagnosed the tennis instructor with MS.
“It was really scary,” he says. “After talking with the doctors, my first thoughts were, ‘Am I going to die?’” What made it worse, he remembers, was that he was alone when he first learned of the diagnosis. Perkins’ wife, Emily, was travelling back from Florida, and his family was home in England.
As his family rushed to get to Des Moines, doctors at the hospital immediately began a steroid treatment.
“Literally, the next day,” Perkins says, “I felt 100% better.”
He learned to accept and live with his MS diagnosis, but opted to tell no one beyond his immediate family. Mostly, he says, he would feel uncomfortable with the attention and the sympathy from his students and colleagues.
Recently, however, he had a change of mind: instead of worrying about how others would react to him, Perkins decided to set his sights on raising awareness.
Last month, he finally announced his medical condition to his Midtown colleagues and students. Everyone, he says, was supportive.
“Anthony handled it quite well,” recalls Midtown pro shop manager Teri Clark. “No one had any idea that he was suffering from MS. To this day, he competes, teaches and remains active,” she adds. “He’s upbeat and determined to live life to the fullest.”
“I was saddened when I first heard his news,” admits co-worker Kim Braun, who supervises Midtown’s front desk. “But I’m amazed and proud that he remains active,” she says. “He continues to accomplish so much both on and off the court.”
The timing of Perkins announcement was to coincide with “World MS Day,” a global awareness campaign worldwide each May. This year’s campaign is set for Wednesday, May 29. For the youth tennis instructor, the campaign allows him to “put a local face” on MS, and also to show his students that life goes on for those diagnosed.
His success for teaching young players the game harkens to his own childhood, where he learned the game at age four. As a teen, he competed in London and Germany, and later earned a tennis scholarship to Drake University. Upon graduation, he served as Drake’s men’s tennis coach. He would join Midtown in 2009, relocating to the Kansas City area.
Perkins’ awareness campaign will be in two stages. He’ll begin by hosting a “Black Tie Optional” fundraiser at Midtown on June 15. The event will feature various tennis matches, food and drink, and a silent auction to benefit the Mid American Chapter of the MS Society. To raise money, he’ll sell black tie-themed t-shirts, and special bow ties.
Two weeks later, Perkins will solicit donation pledges to compete in a Kansas City-area tennis tournament on June 26-30. The winner will be invited to a qualifying tournament to compete at the U.S. Open. He envisions this as his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform on tennis’ biggest stage.
"Anthony has a really good chance at qualifying,” says Midtown Interim General Manager Brad Houx. “We’re really behind him on this.”
The origins of MS, meanwhile, continue to be a medical mystery. Perkins suggests that perhaps his heritage, light complexion or child illness may be to blame.
“I’m British, so I have a lighter skin color,” He says. “Growing up in the UK, there is not as much sunlight,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s related, but I also had glandular fever when I was 15, which is like a strong version of mononucleosis.”
While there are many medical theories abound, medical researchers worldwide still have no direct evidence of any correlations.
Today, Perkins continues his maintenance of weekly beta injections to help prolong future relapses of the disease. He also takes cod liver oil and Vitamin D. The tennis instructor has a loss of feeling in some areas of his feet, but living with MS is something with which both he and his family are learning to deal proactively.
“I teach a lot, and I spend a lot of time on the court,” reflects Perkins. “I think that helps me, because it keeps me in the best shape possible. The doctors tell me, ‘If you’re tired, don’t push it,’” he adds. “But my mantra continues to be, ‘Do what you can… until you can’t.’”
Now that his diagnosis is public, Perkins hopes that his students will see that a chronic illness doesn’t have to change one’s overall quality of life. He and his wife, for instance, welcomed a son, Archer, last September. For Perkins, health is now his priority so he can continue to do what he loves to do—and live a fulfilling life.
"I’m trying to get back to where I was before,” he says. “I go to all my doctor’s appointments, and continue to eat well.”
Most importantly, he also hopes to continue to be a role model to both his students and to his son, as he grows up.
“It’s part of my subplot, and I think it’s okay to put myself on the line,” Perkins says. “I find a lot of kids that I work with are afraid to lose. So much so, that so they won’t take a risk. But as I continue to tell them, ‘If you take a risk, sometimes you get a nice surprise.’”