When a new client walks in the local chapter office of the MS Society, Bre Fitzpatrick can often connect with them on perhaps a deeper level than others.
Employed as the chapter’s development coordinator, Fitzpatrick also has multiple sclerosis.
It was in the fall of 2009 that she started noticing troubling symptoms, including numbness in her fingers and the trunk of her body. “I thought I had a pinched nerve,” she explains. She had completed university studies in communications at the time, and was working at a Calgary restaurant. She had found the restaurant/hospitality industry increasingly interesting, and was considering a move to the west coast to pursue work in that field.
But just after Christmas that year, she started losing vision in her right eye.
Several tests indicated it could be MS and an MRI confirmed it. The diagnosis was confirmed in early 2010.
According to the MS Society, multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system which is composed of the brain and spinal cord. The disease attacks the myelin which is a covering wrapped around the nerves of the central nervous system.
The flow of nerve impulses along nerve fibres (axons) is interrupted or distorted.
Fitzpatrick was told she had ‘relapsing/remitting’ MS, which means symptoms can flare up and then dissipate. “I might not have feeling in this hand, for example, but then it will usually recover and I’ll get either full feeling or almost full sensation back.”
In the time following her diagnosis, she found her thoughts tending to the worst-case scenarios. “I thought, I’m going to be blind, I’m going to be in wheelchair. My life’s going to end. I tended to go to the horror story side of things as opposed to focusing on stories where people live their lives and have very normal experiences.”
But her senses of optimism and resiliency eventually kicked in.
“I didn’t want to change my world, but I realized my work wouldn’t be easy to sustain.” Late nights in a busy Calgary restaurant weren’t conducive to monitoring and protecting her health. “It was hard to get into a pattern where I could maintain it.”
She moved back to Red Deer in the summer of 2010 to benefit from a supportive family network. She got involved with the local chapter of the MS Society through contract work and now works as their development coordinator. Her duties include developing and building sponsorships and relationships in the community.
Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick deals squarely with the challenges of MS as they surface.
“If we had had this interview even two months ago, I would have told you there are some days that are worse than others, but for the most part I’m a very normal, happy and healthy girl. Yes, there are times I have less energy, when a symptom flares up but it usually resolves itself very frequently.”
But prior to this past Christmas she had been experiencing symptom flare-ups and prior to a vacation this year, she was also losing vision in her right eye.
A round of new medications helped and she was off to Hawaii. But on her return home, she started losing mobility in her legs. “It was probably the scariest thing that has happened with my MS. So had I walked in here two weeks ago, I would have been using a cane. I would have been very unsteady.”
And such has been her experience – times of normalcy interrupted with flare-ups that can really take a toll. But through it all, Fitzpatrick maintains a wonderful outlook. She is warm, cheery and absolutely engaging. She is frank about the realities of living with MS but doesn’t choose to dwell on them.
“I always think that there are people who have it way worse. But in any type of moment when you need to be resilient, your perspective on what is important in life changes dramatically. I think you also start to appreciate more, too.”
Fitzpatrick also points to the unexpected ‘blessings’ that have come her way including the support network of family and friends.
“I’ve explored and experienced so many things because of this,” she explains. “If you can take the positive out of a (circumstance), you’re going to have a way better time along the journey. That’s where I try to keep my focus.”
The future isn’t about a set of narrowing opportunities. It’s about making different choices. “I made some different choices based on that information. And that’s okay. And I’ll continue to make different choices as I go along.”
Her experiences certainly help her connect with clients at the office.
“I like knowing I have something to give them – to offer support, be kind and hear their stories. But also I have information and things that will be useful as they journey through and try to navigate this. I think you always see a little piece of yourself in that person.”
The MS Society has two major fundraisers coming up – the Enerflex MS Walk and Run is set for May 26 starting out from the Kiwanis Picnic Shelter at Great Chief Park. Last year Central Alberta Walkers raised $144,874.92.
Also, the Johnson MS Bike Tour is set for June 8-9. It’s a pledge-based fundraising event that provides Canadians with the opportunity to ride through scenic and often spectacular parts of the country. The 2012 Central Alberta MS Bike Tour raised $130,666.
Another event Fitzpatrick is involved with is the ‘Red Deer Sings’ competition, which is being put on by the Red Deer Leadership Centre.
Corporate teams come together and learn singing and dancing routines with professional dance and vocal coaches which they perform and are voted on by a panel of judges and the audience.
Each corporate team picks a charity of choice and they raise $3,000 to be in the competition. At they end, each team will give their $3,000 to that charity plus they have a chance to win an additional $6,000 on top to total $9,000 if they are voted the top team.
“I get to dance and sing with the Earls Red Deer team- a huge honour,” she explains.
“The team there has been so supportive of me and this journey and have graciously selected the MS Society as their charity of choice.”
The performance is set for May 9th at The Sheraton. Tickets are open to the public. Check out http://www.theleadershipcentre.ca/conference/gala-event.
For Fitzpatrick, it boils down to perspective. No matter the trials she faces, there is an obvious joy and vitality that shines through. “I was just thinking this morning when I was driving how my life is lovely,” she says. “I have so much in my world and it’s so exciting. I love my life.”