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Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence

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William Stavrakos: My 70 Years Living with Multiple Sclerosis

William Stavrakos -- Bay Shore, NY*

I’m 88 years old and I’ve been living with MS for 70 years. I’ve fought for my country, traveled the world, raised a family, and have led a fulfilling life. I joined the Navy when I was 19 years old and WWII was starting to wind down. I was trained as a Recruit Training Command (RTC) radio technician and following my training, I was sent to the San Francisco Mare Island Naval Base where I was stationed on the light cruiser USS Vincennes.

My first encounter with MS occurred on the USS Vincennes. Our ships home port was Nouméa, New Caledonia in the South Pacific. The US was at war and the day soon came when the general quarters alarm sounded for everyone to get to their battle stations. As I heard the alarm and I saw my fellow crew members rush to their stations, I told my body to get out of bed, but I found that I couldn’t. My left arm and leg were suddenly paralyzed. I couldn’t get to my battle station.William Stavrakos staring at camera

When attendance was taken, the chief petty officer found me still in bed. I was sent to sick bay for 2 weeks and while there, I was examined by several doctors. Throughout the examinations, nobody was able to discover what caused the temporary paralysis; it was a mystery to them. I soon felt better and was back on my feet for duty. The War was over in August 1945 and in July 1946 I was discharged from the Navy.

Life wasn’t quite the same when I returned home. I soon had another episode where my left arm and leg became paralyzed. My mother took me to the VA hospital in Brooklyn, NY, where I was examined by several doctors, but again, nobody could find the cause. It was difficult not knowing what was wrong, but I was happy that I was quickly able to be up and about again. In 1947 I had another episode and was sent to the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital for a myelogram and spinal tap. Following the tests, at the age of 21, I was told that I likely had MS.

In 1947 doctors were still trying to better understand MS and there were no treatments available for the disease. My neurologist told me that my body might start to show some permanent disease progression in my forties, but for the next 20 years I would likely just have “attacks” that would last between 4-7 days. He told me that I would lead a normal life and it was good to have a better understanding on what was going on, as well as what my future might look like.

I’ve had MS relapses over the years, but I always felt better within a few days. In the 1970s I started noticing that my relapses were a little more frequent. When walking, I found that my leg would drag sometimes and I was tripping and falling down. I traveled for work which made this difficult. I was in my mid-forties when my mobility started to decline and I have to admit it was tough dealing with the changes. For several years I used a cane to get around, then a walker, and for the last 4 years I’ve been in a wheelchair.

Having MS for 70 years has given me a birds-eye view on the progression of knowledge and treatments for the disease. Researchers discovered that MS was an autoimmune disease in the 1960s and the first treatment for MS became available in the early 1990s. Since there were no treatments for MS when I was diagnosed, I tried to live a healthy lifestyle and I think that helped. My diet was good and I watched my food intake to keep my weight in balance. I stayed active and exercised whenever I could. I used to take B-12 injections and I still take a multi-vitamin and vitamin D supplement every day. I’ve never smoked cigarettes and drank maybe one alcoholic beverage a year. I haven’t had a relapse in over 15 years and I’ve outlived four of my neurologists. Doctors talk more and more about diet, exercise, and vitamins now-a-days and I wonder if my lifestyle choices helped my MS.

Doctors told me early on that I would lead a normal life with MS and they were right. They say life is what you make of it and in my life, I’ve traveled the world, seen amazing things, and met wonderful people. I have a beautiful home and a remarkable family. I’m 88 years old, I’ve been living with MS for 70 years, and life is good!

* Mr. Stavrakos passed in the fall of 2016

(from spring 2015 newsletter)