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Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence

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Multiple Sclerosis: Stumbling Across the Finish Line

Michele Catlin – Stafford County, Virginia

In 1995, while stationed as a young Marine in Yuma, AZ, I lost vision in my right eye. It was not complete loss, but significant enough that I was sent to Balboa Naval Hospital where I was ultimately diagnosed with optic neuritis, often a symptom of MS. MS was discussed at that time, but I was young. I didn’t know anything about MS and Google was not yet a thing. My vision eventually corrected enough to be able to function, though it has never been back to 100%.

While in the Marines, I did not enjoy running. I did it only as an obligation to maintain my combat readiness... and because running was a requirement.
Michele Catlin runningFast-forward to 2014, 10 years after exiting the Marines when I decided to get back in shape through running. Once I comfortably hit 3 miles, I continued to challenge my limits and ended up training for a full marathon; I found I actually enjoy running, especially long distances. It was during that training that I noticed I was dragging my right foot; the tread on my right shoe was smooth after just a few wears. On race day, I tripped at mile 22 and could not do anything to break my fall; my limbs did not get the message to react. I am pretty sure I fractured my nose, and thankfully I recovered quickly, but still did not think anything was seriously wrong-I did finish the 26.2 miles that day in under my goal time of 4:20, even with that fall and medical assistance.

In 2015, I took a break from running and went back to school for my PhD. In 2020, I decided I was going to run the Marine Corps Marathon, a goal that had been on my bucket list for several years. COVID caused those live races to be cancelled in 2020/2021, but I continued training, nonetheless. I noticed that my entire right leg was dragging at different points in my runs. Foot drop (I did not yet know it by this name) and overall leg weakness were causing me to stumble, no matter how much strength training I implemented into my workout. Additionally, I noticed that my right hand was losing mobility early in my workday. I was often unable to use my right hand altogether and relied solely on my left to type and answer phones.

I finally ended up with a clear diagnosis in early 2021: Multiple Sclerosis.

One thing I realized is how much I accomplished while having MS, and not knowing it. Getting diagnosed with MS did not stop me, it simply gave me a clear direction in which to proceed through the obstacles I was encountering.

I rely heavily on my left hand for most things. I have supportive family members who help me out when needed. I try to maintain my physical activity. I now own a set of retractable canes, which are actually very common on hiking paths! The VA also issued me an ankle foot orthosis (AFO) to help with my foot drop and the orthotist that I work with at the VA is super supportive of my goals.

There are a lot of support groups out there, many of which not only raise money for MS research, but also encourage goal setting for MS Warriors, whether that be biking, walking or running (short and long distances), canoeing, dancing, gardening, and many other activities for all different ability levels.

I do still intend to complete the Marine Corps Marathon someday, although that realistically may be more walking than running. MS has given me a starting point, not a finish line. The MS journey is different for everyone, and the route looks different for us all, but I am thankful for the VA’s willingness to work with me as I navigate this diagnosis.