National MS Society Ambassador Jackie Waldman was living the "perfect life" with three healthy children, a loving husband and a thriving business when in 1991 she discovered she had multiple sclerosis. Instead of dwelling on her physical pain, she used that energy to begin a new career in volunteerism. Jackie co-founded Dallas' Random Acts of Kindness™ Week.
Waldman is the author of five books; The Courage to Give, Teens with the Courage to Give, America, September 11th: The Courage to Give, Teachers with the Courage to Give, Conari Press, and her latest book People with MS with The Courage to Give, published by RedWheel Weiser with royalties being donated by Jackie to the Society. Waldman inspires others to give through volunteering — no matter what — and to discover that, they too, can triumph over tragedy to make a difference in the world. Jackie's fresh insights and engaging literary style led to an invitation for her to be on Oprah! Jackie was also chosen by CNN as one of their Millennium Heroes.
Having MS has made Jackie realize that what really matters in life is not what happens to us — it's what we do with it. It's about having the courage to give. Having MS has given her the courage to go out and do what she was meant to do in life — to share her message about the power of giving. And today she finds her life has never been better.
Jackie first met her husband and life long companion, Steve when she was fourteen. Six years later, they were married in their senior year of college. After graduating from University of Texas in Austin, they moved back to Dallas, where Steve joined his family's business and Jackie worked as a special needs teacher. She later resigned to be a full time mom to her three children, Melissa, Todd, and Michael. Jackie's life became a tapestry of soccer games, gymnastics, school plays, and family gatherings. She jogged three to five miles a day. As her children got older, she started her own hair accessory business-Bow Jangles. Before long, Jackie had 25 employees and 25 sales reps, and found herself juggling a growing business and active family life. She thought she had everything she ever wanted.
It was around that time she felt a strange tingling sensation around her waist, which she at first thought she was imagining. But when the tingling progressed down her torso to her toes and her legs became numb, she sought medical help. After MRIs and a spinal tap, the verdict was in. On July 12, 1991 Jackie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. On that day, her life changed forever. She was sad, angry, and scared. Was this disease payback for the great life she was living?
In 1991, there were no disease modifying drugs available yet, so Jackie's physician turned to the traditional treatment of the day steroids in an effort to stem her attack. When she continued to worsen, her physician took one of the most radical intervention therapies of the day, Cytoxin or chemotherapy. After three treatments, the attack was stopped. But, in the process, she lost her hair and self-esteem and for the next five years, she did nothing to help herself.
There were days when she didn't get out of bed. Sometimes she would even lie there resenting any happiness around her. When Steve played the piano and the kids sang, it often made her angry. Then she would feel guilty for wanting anything but happiness for the people she loved. Jackie was filled with self doubt whether her husband and children could still love her. Before she got sick, she and Steve loved to dance. Now, her legs were so weak, she could barely get out of bed without getting tired. She wasn't able to work anymore so her business folded. By 1996, she was in a motorized scooter, bitter and hating her life. She was at her lowest point.
Then a chocolate éclair changed Jackie's life yet again. That day had been spent in bed like a host of days preceding it because of Jackie's MS fatigue. But that night, Steve insisted she come to the table and eat with the family. He told her that friends had brought over dinner and that eating it might make her feel better. However, at the table, Jackie's fatigue level was so high that at one point she just drifted off. When she awoke she found herself holding a chocolate éclair out of which she had taken a bite and her face was covered with custard.
That custard on her face was like a bucket of cold water. It woke her up. Suddenly she asked herself, "Do I want to be like this a year from now, eight years from now?" So she decided to make some positive changes in her life. She began to realize that true survival wasn't about whether or not her legs worked; true survival was about how we treat each other. She knew she had an obligation to herself, to her family, and to the world to stop feeling sorry for herself and to start giving back. Jackie at last understood that her husband and children didn't care what she used to be able to do. They just cared about the person she is—someone who loved them and could be loved.
"I was discovering a life within me that was bigger than my own problems. Finding the courage to give was diminishing my pain."
In that moment she started thinking about her family, not herself, and what really mattered to them. It was time to discover new things they could do together.
Soon, Jackie’s home was filled once more with friends, music, and love. Since she was home so much, she soon became the mom all the teens came to with their problems and aspirations. "The more I gave, the more I received." by stepping out of my story long enough to help others, my own story suddenly didn't look as bleak. I was discovering a life within me that was bigger than my own problems. Finding the courage to give was diminishing my pain."
Jackie began working with a group of girls, aged 10-18, that lived in a group home called Our Friends' Place—because it wasn't safe for them to live at home with their families. She shared her story with them and tried to help them overcome their challenges by finding in themselves the courage to give to others as well. At Thanksgiving, Jackie recruited a team of fellow volunteers and together they cooked what for some of these girls was their first and only Thanksgiving meal. That spring when Jackie was participating in Walk MS, where she was riding beside her husband's walk team, she was surprised to find her young compatriots from Our Friends' Place who had put their own problems aside, gotten pledges and were there to walk for the MS cause.
Not one week later, Jackie had a very powerful dream about writing a book to assist others like herself who were experiencing their own personal torment to understand that by reaching out to help someone else, their own healing would begin. "In the dream I saw the book—it was thirty people's personal stories and their photographs. I woke up knowing I had to do this book." The day the book was released Oprah's producer called Jackie to ask her to come on the show. She had discovered her true calling in life: helping others to find personal happiness through the art of giving.
But, to be able to pursue her calling and travel the country sharing her story and continue with her writing career, Jackie had to make a determined effort to maximize her level of wellness so along with improving her diet, undertaking a Yoga regime, in 2001 she began using one of the four available drug therapies in that help modulate the immune system and effect underlying disease process in multiple sclerosis.
"I have not had one attack since I've been on Avonex," says Jackie. "I also have a lot more energy to do all the things I do, to live my life. It saddens me to know that 40% of all MS patients are not seeking treatment for their MS. I don't know why that is. I do know that they are making the same mistake I did-they're giving up."
Jackie tries to help others find their courage to give-use their own unique gifts-to make someone else's life a little better, whether it’s a family member, a friend, or even a stranger in their community.