Life with MS

Teen is Taking on MS

By Marianly H. Primmer

It started with bad headaches, then nausea. Angie Leary was a junior at Western High School when doctors told her she was suffering from migraines.

Nonetheless she continued to plow through the school year. Angie is used to having a lot on her plate. She’s a natural overachiever. She also holds three leadership positions in school, and has been practicing karate for 14 years.

Angie said at first she didn’t think anything of the symptoms. Then things got worse.

A few weeks later a pediatric neurologist diagnosed her with ADEM (acute disseminated encephalomyelitis), a rare autoimmune disease characterized by a brief attack of swelling in the brain and spinal cord, a condition that can mimic MS.

The 17-year-old said she continued to dismiss the symptoms, “I started getting random muscle spasms, random nerve pain.”

Then, during the summer, Angie took part in her school’s senior tradition of painting classmates’ names on a median in the school parking lot. She and other students painted in the sweltering heat in middle of the day. After two hours of sweating under the hot South Florida sun, Angie could no longer ignore her fatigue

“I knew something was wrong.” Angie was dizzy and nauseous, but she didn’t tell anyone. Instead, she pushed herself and painted for two more hours until she finished the project. It’s something she laughs about today because, at the time, she had no idea of the seriousness of her condition. 

She wasn’t capable of driving herself home from school that afternoon. Instead her parents drove her to the ER and she was admitted to the hospital. Doctors ordered MRIs and a spinal tap.

During the hospital stay, the night before what would have been her first day of school, Angie said she remembers lying in a hospital bed, resting with her eyes closed. She appeared to be asleep when she heard a neurologist telling her mom she has relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. 

“I just heard my mom crying.” Angie kept her eyes closed and pretended to sleep. “If I didn’t open my eyes it wasn’t real.”

The teenager couldn’t help but think the doctors were wrong. “I was thinking MS was a disease for older people.”

The diagnosis became real for Angie a couple of months later when she was prescribed her first medication for neuropathic pain, an injection she gives herself three times per week. “I worried I wouldn’t be able to walk or have children,” Angie said.

Nevertheless, she was determined to manage her MS symptoms and continue living at full speed.

But soon the honor student was forced to make some changes, “I had to say ‘no’ to people because I didn’t have the energy to go out.” One night out for Angie means resting for the next three days. She’s also forced to turn down beach trips with her friends to avoid the heat.

MS also affects her education. “My medical diagnosis decided where I’m going to school,” Angie said she was accepted to Florida State in Tallahassee, but that would mean nearly an eight-hour drive, making it difficult in case of an emergency. Although FSU was her first choice, she and her family decided a school in Orlando, which is three hours away from her home, would be a better choice.

“I’m excited, but also super nervous. Sometimes I feel like I’m thinking of other things instead of enjoying [senior year].” Angie sometimes feels groggy or dizzy at school, but says she doesn’t tell her friends. She says she knows other people have bigger health problems.

Instead she is trying to make the most of her senior year. Angie participated in her school’s mock pageant. She had the energy to attend every rehearsal, dance, and practice each day after school and on Saturdays. That’s when Angie had an ‘a-ha’ moment, “You can’t base your life on stuff that hasn’t happened. Anyone can get into a car accident and not be able to walk.”

Instead of worrying, now she takes things day-by-day, “I appreciate things more. The basic things – I appreciate walking. I appreciate all the healthy moments.”

She also appreciates the moments with family. She has always been close to her family, but now she, her parents, and two younger brothers are even closer.

Today she is taking two sets of medications. She will be tested for her black belt soon. Angie is also looking forward to college where she plans to double major in psychology and criminal justice, and, one day, work in forensic psychology.

Although not exactly at full speed, Angie is still determined to live her own life. “I have MS, but MS does not define me.”