Guest Blog by Deb Pereira
In March of 2016, I went to bed fine, and awoke with double vision. A short course of prednisone seemed to fix the double vision, but ten days later I awoke with partial loss of vision in my left eye, plus the double vision had returned. Another course of prednisone and things seemed to be getting better, so I headed south to Florida in my motorhome with three dogs to meet up with friends at an agility trial near Tampa, then head to compete at Pointer Nationals.
Once I arrived in the Florida heat and humidity, I continued to get new and varied symptoms each day. I never knew what I was going to wake up to. Being a pharmacist, I spent all my free time researching symptoms on the internet, and by now I suspected Multiple Sclerosis. On Sunday, I drove myself to the closest ER, and after a CT scan ruled out a stroke or tumor, I was able to get a neuro consult and discuss with the doctor my thoughts about it possibly being MS. I left the emergency room that evening with instructions to take 1200 mgs of prednisone a day for five days to hopefully calm my immune system and stop the attack. I was hopeful that with two days’ rest and being on medication I would be able to compete in agility at Nationals. When it became clear I was not getting better and needed help, my husband caught a flight to Florida to drive us home. The day he flew down was agility day, and I had two simple goals – to compete in agility at Nationals with my two Pointers and to drive the motorhome safely several hours to Jacksonville to meet my husband at the airport. Running agility with my girls was not pretty, but we managed to make it through the courses together. They were just as unsure as I was on course since they sensed something was very wrong.
I was very lucky in that I was able to get an appointment with a neurologist who heads a MS clinic within a week of being home, and about a week later, my MRI confirmed MS as the definitive diagnosis. My symptoms continued to deteriorate. I couldn’t drive, I could barely see, and walking was a challenge due to my balance and numbness issues. As soon as the diagnosis was confirmed, I was able to start my disease modifying therapy aimed at preventing future relapses, and I began the slow process of coming out of my first major MS flare-up.
So why did I feel it was important to share the details leading up to my diagnosis? I wanted to highlight how quickly things can change: literally overnight.
When I experienced my first major acute MS exacerbation in the spring of 2016, things got so bad I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to do agility again. Heck, at one point I wasn’t so sure I’d even be driving independently. While I still have symptoms on a daily basis, they are manageable and I am truly appreciative of all the things I can still do at this time – maybe not as fast or agile as I was once able to do them, but good enough! I’m hopeful it will be a very long time before I experience another acute exacerbation of this disease, as every acute exacerbation of inflammation leads to permanent scarring and additional symptoms. There is currently no cure for MS, and once the damage is done to areas along the covering of the nerves (the myelin sheath), it is permanent.
I now have a different sense of urgency. Tomorrow, I may or may not have the same cognitive and physical abilities that I have today. Living with an illness that threatens to take your functions away on a daily basis puts how precious time (and health) is in perspective.
One of the things that still amazes me is how sensitive my Pointer Deena was during this time. She was there during the initial attack and never left my side. She sensed things were very wrong when trying to run agility at our Pointer Nationals just prior to being diagnosed and tried to adjust to what I needed, but she was very unsure of what to do. Because I was doing things differently, even clumsily, she was matching my uncertainty and I think the impact on Deena has lingered. I refer to that time as my “six martini” period due to my poor balance, and navigating an agility course was definitely a challenge. Sure, I saw 24 poles instead of 12 but my brain was able to figure out which one was the “real” entrance pole! I had other symptoms during this time – numbness, itching, burning pain – but these were the first symptoms to resolve once on meds. The vision, balance, strength, and cognitive issues are the ones that lingered the longest and which can still cause issues. Gradually my six-martini days became one-martini days, and now most days are martini-free.
Currently, my MS is considered non-active, which simply means there is no active inflammation going on in my brain. My symptoms and their severity vary depending on the day – how hot it is and how tired I am. When running agility, I can get disoriented after turning my head quickly, especially after front crosses. More times than I can count, I’ve caused my dog to go off course after I’ve been a little slow to adjust following a front cross. I know this is 100% my fault and it bugs me but that’s just the way it is. Good dog for doing what I indicated, especially since I was wrong! I’ve found that I have needed to adjust my handling style, and I rely on more rear crosses now than I have in the past unless the front cross is the best choice and spaced such that I can time it correctly to avoid rushing.
I can also get dizzy when looking down at the ground or my dog, even when setting bars on jumps. So, I try and avoid doing this when possible. If it’s hot or humid I know my energy is limited, so I try and conserve my supply of energy for running my own dogs. While I’d like to volunteer more, I know that would tap into my finite energy stores and I just can’t do what I used to do. Instead of course building or ring crew, I’ll choose to volunteer as a scribe or timer.
I’m very blessed to still be able to play the agility game with my girls. I’m trying to do everything I can to stay healthy enough to continue to do all the things in life that I enjoy. I’ve learned to let go of the things that don’t really matter in the big scheme of things, especially things that sap my physical and emotional energy. I don’t know what the future holds since MS is a very unpredictable disease, and I am thankful to have the love and support of my family, friends, and my dogs to help me when I need it.
Hug your pups when you step up to the line – you never know when your last run may be.
If you want to learn more about MS, here is a link to a short two minute video put together by the National MS Society.
Photo courtesy of Mike McGuire.
Deb competes in agility with her Pointers Annie and Deena and her Bracco Italiano Elvira. Annie, now retired, was the first Pointer to earn a PACH, and was High in Trial-Preferred three times at the Pointer National. Deena was the youngest Pointer to earn a MACH and is the first Champion MACH4 Pointer, as well as earning High in Trial at Pointer Nationals three times, and being the top Pointer at the Invitational in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Elvira is the first and only Bracco to compete and title in AKC agility in the USA and is currently competing at the Masters level. More info on Deb and her dogs can be found at www.agiledogz.com.