Over the course of the last year and a half, a series of unexpected circumstances have put me on a trajectory I never before could have imagined. In the fall of 2016, I returned to school to finish my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Social Science at Portland State University. I decided to take a course that first term back to academia taught by Dr. Bill Greisar, Ph.D. called “Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory,” and little did I know, that class would open me up to a world of neuroscience that I had never before been exposed to. During Spring term of 2017, I registered for another of Dr. Greisar’s courses — “Perception” — which he teaches in collaboration with Jeff Leake. Bill and Jeff, as they prefer to be called, also run NW Noggin, and through involvement with the 2017 March for Science, I found myself getting more and more involved with volunteering with the organization.
I had now found myself, through nothing but chance, visiting K-12 schools with other volunteers, teaching kids the little bit about neuroscience that I had learned, and simultaneously learning more about the brain than I could have ever imagined possible myself. During this same time, I had begun to experience some strange things with my body, including tingling and weakness on the right side of my body, especially my right hand and arm. Through a series of visits to various medical providers, I found myself being sent to get an MRI by a neurologist, followed by a lumbar puncture — also known as a spinal tap — and on May 30, 2017, I received a phone call that would shake the very foundation of my life.
It was late on a Wednesday morning, and my phone rang. My neurologist was on the other side of the line and I turned my speakerphone on so my partner could hear what he had to say. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” he began, “but your results came back and there is no doubt, you have multiple sclerosis.” He explained to me briefly that multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a neurological disorder where my immune system is attacking and destroying the myelin insulating my nerves. Because of my exposure to neuroanatomy from my studies in the university combined with my outreach to youth in K-12 schools, I knew exactly what he was talking about as he described it, and I held my partner’s hand and began to cry. “I want to see you sooner than we were originally scheduled for,” he said before telling me that he had fit me into a time slot the following week.”Finally,” he concluded, “between now and then, I highly encourage you to go to the website for the National MS Society and learn as much as you can.”
I had, without ever having been able to foresee it, found myself in a unique position where I had been desperately searching for a new direction with my studies, I had serendipitously began learning and teaching about the brain and had developed a strong desire to do something with my life that could use this knowledge, and I was being diagnosed with a disorder that affects the same things that I had been studying. I knew then and there that whatever I was meant to do, working to learn more about and helping contribute to the body of knowledge related to MS was going to be a big part of that.
In autumn of 2017, as the heat of summer loosened its grip, I again found myself in Dr. Greisar’s lecture hall, but this time playing dual roles. 3 days a week I would spend my mornings working as a teaching assistant for 2 of his courses, and then I would switch back to my role as a student in the afternoons as I attended his “Intro to Neurophysiological Psychology” lectures. I also started volunteering with the National MS Society and reading everything I could find on MS.
Things changed yet again for me earlier this year after a chance communication introduced me to Dr. Jacqueline Bernard, M.D., F.A.A.N., associate professor of neurology at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine, physician, and researcher at the OHSU Multiple Sclerosis Center. I had been awarded the opportunity to do a research project through the McNair Scholars program, and Dr. Bernard graciously agreed to serve as my mentor. I am now preparing to conduct my own research at OHSU looking at depression in multiple sclerosis, with the intention of having it published in an academic journal and presented at a conference either later this year or early in 2019. This is, I hope, only the first step on a journey with much more research ahead.
This year I have also been accepted onto the NW Noggin Resource Council as the resource council member for MS research and I have continued my involvement with the National MS Society, including volunteering and fundraising for this year’s Walk MS event a few weeks ago and the upcoming Bike MS event taking place this coming August (if you would like to support the cause, you can make a donation here). Living with MS is not always easy, but it has opened me up to a world of opportunities I could never have fathomed, and it has given me both a direction in my studies and academic career, but also an incentive to work to improve my own health in an effort to maximize my quality of life. Being diagnosed with MS has given me a chance to devote my life and use my experiences to raise awareness about MS, write about MS, research MS, and most importantly, change the lives of others living with MS for the better.