Trish Rawls is fighing her MS the best way she knows how — by riding in this weekend’s MS Bike Ride.
Riding adult trikes, she and her husband Jesse will join other riders on the 30-mile loop Saturday — and that’s an accomplishment for someone first diagnosed with the disease in 2006.
MS — multiple sclerosis — is a disease of unknown origin that is most often first diagnosed in young adults. A person’s nerves are coated in a sheath that protects them and helps send messages from the brain to the body and back. In MS, those sheaths become damaged, interrupting the flow and resulting in both physical and psychological damage. Lesions form, disrupting visual, motor and sensory action and can leave a person with double vision, exhaustion, chronic pain, depression, coordination and balance problems.
There is no cure, though money is continually raised through events like the annual New Bern Bike MS Ride to keep research going.
As a child, Rawls was athletic. “I played on three soccer teams," she said. She was one of two children chosen to be appointed to West Point for her athletic abilities, though a torn ACL stopped that.
Looking back, Rawls said she had symptoms long before her 2006 diagnosis. She lived in New England at the time.
“I thought I had something in my eye,” she said. So she visited an eye doctor who quickly sent her to a specialist in Vermont. There, an MRI confirmed she had optic neuritis, a common early symptom of MS.
“It takes (finding) two lesions to be diagnosed with MS, and I had 12,” she said.
Still, she felt blessed.
“A lot of people, it takes years for them to get diagnosed,” she said. “I feel blessed that I knew what was wrong with me and I could start treatment.”
Those lesions, she said, “were explained like they’re scars in your brain and spine, so what your brain’s trying to tell your body to do, the scars sort of block that signal to your body.”
Other signs developed. “For me, it was fatigue, numbness and tingling in your extremities,” she said.
Because her family was from the Winston-Salem area, Rawls decided to move back to North Carolina. She transferred to a job with General Dynamics in Charlotte and there she met Jesse Rawls. A relationship quickly developed and soon they were married. When they were laid off in 2012 (“Defense industry layoffs are very common,” she said), “We both started looking for a job right away.” Jesse landed work at Cherry Point and the couple moved to Oriental.
“When I moved here in 2013, my insurance ran out,” she said. “I stopped all my meds.” Those medications, she said, could cost $30,000 to $60,000 a month.
At first, stopping the meds was a pleasant surprise.
“It’s ridiculous,” she remembered, “I felt better than I had felt in the past 8 or 9 years I had MS.”
But that didn’t last. Soon she suffered attacks and ended up spending five days at the hospital. “I think it was six or seven months in a row that I had an MS eaacerbation,” or active attack, she said. “I did 70,000 miligrams of steroids that year,” the usual treatment for MS attacks.
During those attacks she can remember, “when I would look down, an electrical spark would go down from the back of my neck all the way down my body.”
She is currently in remission, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t suffering from the debilitating disease.
“Even in remission the scars still block the signals," she said. "It never goes away. You have body pains and aches. I have to walk with a cane because I’ve fallen so many times. I’ve had concussions from falling.”
She has what she calls “good days” and “very bad days,” and battles depression.
“I was very successful in sports and academics,” she said. “My career was very successful and I failed in that. MS takes that away and takes your independence away.”
Though he is supportive, Jesse said watching her suffer is hard.
“It’s the frustration,” he said. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her, but there’s nothing I can do for her as far as easing the pain. I can’t carry her pain for her. … I try to be an advocate for her,” but he said he often feels helpless.
However, they have found some freedom through bicycling.
John and Judy Adams, close friends who are also neighbors, ride adult tricycles. “He’s the one that convinced us,” Trish said.
Jesse went to Flythe’s Bicycle shop where Mac Flythe helped them find the right bicycle to ride.
“It was the best thing that happened to me on the MS journey,” she said. “When it’s sunny I’m on my trike.”
As an advocate to bring awareness to, and fight MS, she has worked hard to raise funds for the ride. So far, she has raised $3,000 and has also been invited to address the MS riders on Saturday. Both she and her husband will ride.
Anyone who would like to donate to her ride should make checks out to Bike MS and can leave them for her at Flythe’s Bike Shop at 2411 Trent Road, New Bern.