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Support and Courage, Keys to Facing Multiple Sclerosis

One night, in 1990, Irma Resendez went to bed after a regular day of runs to the store, a trip to the park with her two and three year-old girls, a cleanup of the looks-like-a-war-zone play room. The next day, she was paralyzed from the waist down and with limited movement in her arms.

By Isaac Itman

Irma Resendez, fighting multiple sclerosis for herself and othersOne night, in 1990, Irma Resendez went to bed after a regular day of runs to the store, a trip to the park with her two and three year-old girls, a cleanup of the looks-like-a-war-zone play room. The next day, she was paralyzed from the waist down and with limited movement in her arms.

One night, she started to feel sick with a fever and chills. She tried to make her way to the bathroom, but realized something was really wrong.

"I couldn't get my legs to get up, so I literally crawled to the restroom," said the Latino woman from Rosemead, Calif., who was then 28 years old. "I told my husband 'honey I can't feel my legs.'"

Resendez's husband rushed her to the hospital in the middle of the night, and she ended up in the University of Southern California Medical Center's intensive care unit.

After one month, she was transferred to the rehabilitation facility Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center, where she stayed for three more months. One day, while they were wheeling her to physical therapy, she finally found out the cause of her health problems.

"A neurologist resident came and said to me 'oh, by the way, I know what's wrong with you now. You have multiple sclerosis, and you'll probably never walk again,'" recalls Resendez.

"I started crying, they had to give me a shot to calm me down," she said.

In the United States there are between 250,000 and 350,000 people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that damages the myelin sheath, the fatty substance that protects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

Older Couple supporting themselvesOnce damage has occurred, neurological transmission of messages between the brain and the rest of the body can be slowed or completely interrupted, leading to the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. These can be mild or severe and include visual problems, muscle weakness, difficulties with coordination and balance, numbness, cognitive impairments and depression.

Although its causes are still unknown, scientists believe multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects more women than men. Most patients manifest their first symptoms between the ages of 20 and 40.

Back in her home, Resendez said she became angry and sad, and went through a period of depression. Feeling like she couldn't take care of her daughters, she wanted her husband to marry someone else.

"I wanted to be mean to my husband so that he could fall in love with my sister," said the now 46-year-old woman. "I did have a plan to end my life."

One day after being told by her ophthalmologist that she could lose the vision in her left eye, she decided to run a red light and stop in the middle of the street, in the hope that a car would hit her. Even though no one was hurt, another driver made her realize that she could have caused harm to others as well.

When she realized her actions could have endangered other people's lives, she went home and confessed her plans to her husband.

"I just couldn't believe she was telling me this," said 50-year-old Juan Resendez, adding that his wife was thinking the worst because she didn't know how progressive her illness was going to be.

"She was thinking about our daughters too because they were so young," he said. "She was thinking that she couldn't do a lot of things with them anymore."

However, the couple stayed together. Over time Irma's symptoms began to improve. She started to walk again, and she went back to school, obtaining a bachelor's and a master's degree in Social Work from California State University at Long Beach (CSLB).

Particularly with multiple sclerosis, support systems are very important to preserve the patient's mental health, according to Sara Brandt, private consultant and licensed marriage and family therapist working with the UCSF Multiple Sclerosis Center.

"It is really easy to slip into the depression or the anxiety with that diagnosis, because you don't know what's going to happen [as the illness progresses]," she said.

In January of 1998, Resendez founded Familia Unida Living with Multiple Sclerosis, Exit Disclaimer a non-profit, Los-Angeles-based organization dedicated to providing information, support and resources in English, Spanish and Chinese for patients with multiple sclerosis and other debilitating illnesses.

Grateful for the love and understanding of her own family, one of Resendez's main goals is to offer support networks for those who feel isolated, lonely and depressed.

"We can be the family for a lot of people that don't have a family," she said.


Isaac Itman is a writer for OMHRC. Comments? E-mail: Isaac Itman.

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Content Last Modified: 8/7/2008 2:54:00 PM
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