We got in late, ordered pizza from one of our favorite spots, and then crashed at an Air BnB. The next morning, Kari woke up unable to control the entire left side of her body. Being young, naive, and frankly stupid, we (I) thought that maybe she slept weird. Maybe she had a pinched nerve or something. I suggested that she try some stretches or yoga to see if she could work it out while I showered to get ready for work. She agreed, but the stretches weren’t helping, so we decided to go to the nearest walk-in clinic.
Preparing for how slow and annoying the clinic might be, Kari suggested that we eat some cold, leftover pizza first. We’re suckers for pizza… especially cold, leftover pizza.
So, after our snack, I drove her to the clinic and helped her hobble in like you would a friend with a sprained ankle. They saw us almost immediately, did a couple simple physical tests, showed some panic, and told us to get to the emergency room. They thought she might be having a stroke.
They told us the nearest hospital was a few city blocks away and that they’d call an ambulance. Again, my cocky, young brain said that I would get her there faster and declined the ambulance. I sped through the Chicago city streets and ran a light or 2 until we got to the nearest hospital, which had someone waiting outside for Kari with a wheelchair.
After rushing through a bunch of tests and scans, a nurse accidentally dropped the bomb that Kari had been diagnosed with MS and was having a major flare up. We had no idea wtf that even meant. Kari burst into tears, while I tried comforting her and googling to figure out what this meant and what we were going to do.
MS is a disease in which your immune system can mistake your healthy nervous system as foreign and go after it. White blood cells effectively attack and destroy the coating around the neurons, causing signals to get stuck or leak. The signals that her brain was trying to send to her left side were not making it to the intended muscles. She was now tasked with mentally rewiring her own nervous system to consciously control her body again.
We spent 4 days in the hospital, trying to get Kari to walk. She was being pumped with 1000s of mg of steroids while doing additional tests and exercises daily.
Aside from encouragement and picking up more chores around our lives, I didn’t know how to help… but I painted that walker gold. I found fashionable work chairs for the kitchen, bathroom, etc. I found some yoga videos that were specialized for folks with MS. I started looking for homes with less stairs. I got involved in the MS society, organized teams for walks, bike rides, etc. I researched trikes so that she could ride with me if her balance didn’t come all the way back. I advocated for her and helped navigate the incredibly frustrating medical world and broken US healthcare system. I got one of the tallest buildings of my city lit up orange for her during MS awareness month. She got the shit end of this deal, and my “fixer” self tried to solve everything that I could. Even if it was maybe too much at times.
Through much physical therapy and medication, Kari stabilized into a new normal. She went from a walker to a cane. She went back to work, teaching students with behavior disorders. She ditched her cane and joined gyms. She completely revamped her diet, cut everything out, and went strictly paleo while she figured out what affected her MS symptoms. She got herself back into some heels.
She has absolutely owned getting as much control of this disease as she possibly can.
So far, science and medication have prevented her from having more major flare ups. She may have them again at some point, and she will likely always have symptoms from that first one. To this day, she has the additional mental tax of consciously keeping her balance and telling her limbs when and how to move. Sometimes she also fights a bit of drop foot, or is slowed down by dizziness or mental exhaustion.
But you probably wouldn’t know it.
Kari could've handled this diagnosis in so many different ways, and she chose to fight.
This woman wakes up before 5am every day to get to the gym and “get her legs moving.” She has gone from a teacher to a consultant, to an administrator in the largest school district in our state. She is on her feet all day long, running shit, and advocating for young people.
Kari, very understandably doesn’t like MS being part of her brand. People say and do weird things when they know that you have a disability. You get treated differently, and not always in a good way, despite people’s intentions. People judge you and your ability.
Early on, I pushed for all the support that I could get her through MS walks, rides, custom shirts, and fundraisers, but out of respect for Kari’s (very strong) brand, I laid off. We became much more private about this “new normal.” As such, y’all don’t get as much of a glimpse into the strength that this woman puts forth on the daily.
Kari's fight will continue, but I couldn’t be more proud of her and what she's made of the past 10 years.
She is truly the strongest woman I know.