Emilie Valdez was overcome with emotion Friday at Indian Trail High School and Academy when Donna Binninger handed her a computer printout.
Binninger, the school secretary, had just tallied $2,773 in donations from students, staff and teachers for Valdez and her team, the Orange Ninjas, for this year’s Walk MS, coming up May 6 to benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Valdez, 18, has been participating Walk MS since she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a 15-year-old sophomore. Her goal this year was to raise $500.
She never dreamt her idea of MS Awareness Week at Indian Trail would bring in more than five times that amount.
“It says a lot of people love you, Emilie,” Indian Trail Dean of Students Andrew Atkins told Valdez, who buried her face in her hands to hide her happy tears.
The school decided to donate the regular sale of Thursday pizzas to the effort, with Dolce Vita pizzeria — owned by student Hanza Ramadani’s brother — and Domino’s Pizza — where Emilie’s uncle works —pitching in 110 pizzas.
In addition, 110 “Team Emilie” T-shirts were sold, along with cupcakes.
Atkins said the effort got a big boost through a video made by an Indian Trail senior featuring an interview with Valdez. It was shown during morning school announcements, assuring its viewing by all 2,300 students there.
Said Atkins: “She’s a good kid. People want to help those who are humble and kind.”
The emotions Valdez experienced Friday contrasted with the tearful anger that met her initial MS diagnosis in October 2014.
She had struggled to get out of bed that day and kept falling down when she tried to walk. While riding to school, she told her mother she was seeing double. At first, Valdez thought it was because she was sleepy, but when she rubbed her eyes, the double vision remained.
Her mother detoured to the hospital, where an MRI revealed Valdez had a large brain lesion.
“It wasn’t that I lost my motor skills. It was that I couldn’t keep my balance. The lesion was so large in my brain that it affected my balance,” Valdez said.
In Milwaukee at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Valdez underwent a spinal tap, another MRI, more tests. Imaging showed multiple brain and spinal lesions, including the large one affecting her balance and vision, as well as a number of older lesions. That helped explain what she and her family had attributed as her being overly clumsy as a child.
“I had a whole team that was trying to figure out what was going on. They said a normal brain doesn’t look like this,” Valdez said.
“I never thought I’d hear anything like that. That was actually 16 days before my birthday, my ‘Sweet 16,’” Valdez said wryly, recalling the MRI results. “I remember when I brought that up to one of the nurses. I was like, ‘Happy birthday to me.’”
She would spend six months of her sophomore year in a wheelchair. Her hopes to play basketball for Indian Trail came to a halt.
After injection treatments with Copaxone, a drug designed to slow down progression of the disease — which as yet has no known cure — Valdez’s doctor switched her to an oral regimen of Gilenya, which appears to be showing beneficial results, she said.
Meanwhile, Valdez continues undergoing MRIs every six months to monitor the MS. Life, of course, has changed for her as she deals with the ongoing challenges.
“I have to schedule out how to expend my energy,” Valdez said, explaining how she has to prioritize things in her daily life, for example, by writing sticky notes as reminders to aid her memory.
Some days, the nerve pain gets so bad she can’t go to school. Some nights, the pain prevents her from falling asleep until 7 a.m., when her peers typically are getting ready for school.
She needs eyeglasses with prismatic lenses to correct the double vision. During the school day, she sometimes needs to lie down and rest in the nurse’s office.
In addition, there are what she satirically refers to as the “lovely medications” she takes in the morning to quell other side effects of MS.
Before experiencing MS, Valdez said she had no awareness of the disease. Now, she wants to do all she can to raise awareness.
“MS affected my life in good ways, too. It wasn’t all bad,” Valdez said. “I used to have a bad attitude. Now, I have a more positive outlook. Don’t get me wrong; I have my bad days when I think everything just sucks. But, with having MS, I have a more open mind than when I first came into Indian Trail. I’ve improved a lot.
“I’m blessed to have a family that cares about me and is always going to be by my side. They’re always there being my backbone, even when I want to give up.”
For now, her sights are set on becoming a nurse anesthetist.
Meanwhile, she continues to volunteer whenever she can.
“Whenever people ask if I can help them with a subject or something, I help them. I like volunteering because it brings a smile to my face when I see other people happy. It’s not a requirement to be kind,” Valdez said.
What is MS?
Multiple sclerosis involves an abnormal response of the body’s immune system being directed against the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves comprising the central nervous system.
The immune system attacks myelin — the fatty substance that surrounds and insulates the nerve fibers — as well as the nerve fibers themselves. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue (sclerosis), which gives the disease its name.
When any part of the myelin sheath or nerve fiber is damaged or destroyed, nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord are distorted or interrupted, producing a wide variety of symptoms.
The cause of MS is unknown, and people with MS typically experience one of four disease courses, which can be mild, moderate or severe.
Source: The National MS Society