Sunday, June 13, 2010

My Story... So Far... Part 1

Life is a funny journey. For me it has come with my fair share of ups and downs. It's my contention that it's what you choose to do with those ups and downs that separates the "victims" from the "champions". I think this is a concept I learned early on as a competitive alpine ski racer, unlike some sports that are artistic and open to interpretation, my sport of choice was cut and dry; the fastest one to the bottom wins! This created a black and white contextual choice- do you want to win or do you want to loose. I've always chosen to be the winner; it's more work but it's more fun, in my humble opinion too.

I use skiing as my metaphor for my disease process and progress fittingly I think. You see it was a warm winters day in February while I was enjoying working as the head coach of my childhood ski team that I noticed something wasn't right with my left eye. On my first ascent up the Mile One quad the sun caught my right eye just enough that it forced it to close; with that the whole of the world disappeared and I was faced with the disturbing realization that EVERYTHING was black. I was blind in my left eye. Not wanting to disturb the young athletes I was ridding with and responsible for I sat quietly on the chair playing with my new found reality. I closed my right eye and then my left eye over and over again. I gently took my hand out of my ski mitt and rubbed my left eye hoping to remove whatever block had taken over. Nothing worked.

As I exited from the chair lift as I had done more than a million times before, something was different. I had no depth perception at all and no idea where the ski hill started and my skis ended. Seeing as I put on my first pair of skis at the age of two, this was a very disturbing event for me.

I'm going to be very honest with you now, because I could go on about my athleticism and how I'd never been in better form, which is true. The truth is, I also enjoyed my "ski bum" lifestyle in those days, which meant skiing hard and playing harder. My point is; I had been out the night before dancing and drinking with all of my friends. I was 20, I thought that's what I was supposed to be doing. The truth is that in those disturbing moments on the snow I truly thought that I had done this to myself; I really did think that I had drunk myself blind and I certainly wasn't proud of it.

Somehow I got through my day of coaching and instead of stopping and thinking about the seriousness of what had transpired I shifted into gear. You see coaching was my weekend gig, I needed to pack-up and drive three hours to get home and be ready to go the next day for my new week day job; customer service at a high end fitness gym. I was working seven days a week trying to save up some money to move out or go traveling again or maybe both. I was an athlete I could easily do it all. So I jumped in my car and drove on the winter roads, in the dark, through the mountain passes, with one working eye... Not the smartest of choices, but the "winning" choice at least at the time.

I pulled into Calgary in record time, ski racers aren't known for their cautious driving efforts. Most of us drive like we race; "if you aren't first, your last!" We come by it naturally. I walked into my Mom and Step-Father's house knowing that I had to avoid a bunch of questions and just get to bed and sleep off this "bad dream". I avoided them skillfully and made it to the safety of my room without incident. Finally I could sleep off this HANGOVER and wake-up recharged and refreshed.

That's not how it happened though... I woke up and played with my eyes in bed expecting I would immediately "see" a difference because of my good Sunday night behaviour. Nothing had changed. When I closed my right eye, everything was still gone; little did I know then that it also meant for me that nothing in my life would EVER look the same again.

Mad at the world I got up and went through the process of getting ready for my weekday job; shower, makeup, hair. I ignored my Mom as she called after me to eat something, I had to escape her "mother knows best" scrutiny in case she noticed that something wasn't right. Once again I jumped in my car without thinking much about the consequences, except to note that I should probably take the back streets downtown.

Five minutes into my drive I pulled over. Things were coming out of nowhere and then some. I wasn't as rehearsed at driving as I was at skiing, I couldn't "fake" my way safely to my new job. I picked up my brick of a cell phone that I was given for "emergencies" only and dialed my Mom. I tried to calmly explain that I had no vision in my left eye between the tears and that I needed help now. Within minutes of the call my Mom pulled up beside me with my sister in tow to drive my vehicle home. She told me she'd already called my family doctor and my work and that we wouldn't be going straight home.

My family doctor ran around the office like a crazy person. She tested my eyes and looked deeply into them with her light. She pulled out pins and started sticking me with them all over, I thought at the time she might be on crack. This did not seem like normal doctor protocol to me. She called down to the office manager to call and make an appointment with a opthomologist for me. I looked at my doctor and tried to explain that I would be available the following morning because I didn't start work till 2 or 3pm. My doctor looked at me and said in no uncertain terms; "you and your Mom are going now." And that was it, out of the office we marched, instructions in tow and a million stories running through our minds.

I wanted at this point to lean over and calm my Mom as she drove like a maniac and say something reassuring like "don't worry mom, I just had a few extra tequila's Saturday night; everything will be fine." But somehow I didn't think that was what my Mom wanted to hear at the time. I really did think that everyone was over reacting at the time. That is until we reached the specialist's office.

I walked to the desk to inform them that I had arrived. I knew from past experiences that this was going to take awhile as I looked around the office with my good eye and saw probably about 15 people sitting, waiting ahead of me. The alarm bell finally resonated in me when the woman behind the desk took my information and my health card and then said, "okay Shara, follow me." She took me directly into a dimmly lit room. Now I was nervous, now I was scared.

Before leaving my Mom watched the nurse squeeze drops into my eyes and turn off the lights behind her. "Shara, the doctor will be in soon. These drops are meant to dilate your eyes."

"CRAP!" I thought as I sat in the dark, "this is not going to end well."

The doctor came in with an intern. He looked in one eye and then the next. He pulled my eye lids back as far as it felt like they would stretch and made noises confirming that he had been "right" to begin with; "ahhahh, oh yesss, unhuh"... Then he flipped the light switch and took a seat on the doctor stool. "You see Shara you have optic neuritis", he explained. "That's when the optic nerve inflames to the point that it blocks the images from being transmitted from for eyes, to your brain. We will treat it aggressively with steroids and refer you to an optic-neurologist for follow up in about 3 weeks. I do have to tell you at this point Shara, that optic neuritis, in your age group is an early warning sign of MS; 70% of the young woman who are diagnosed with this go on to have a confirmed diagnosis of MS." And with that he wrote the prescription and left.

My mom and I walked out of that office like we were shell shocked having witnessed a war. "What the hell is MS?" I thought. "And why the hell would he put that on me? Hello, I'm 20, I'm an athlete... Sure my optic nerves a little swollen from all the tequila shots, but I'll be fine."

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