Jackson raises awareness, cash

Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006

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Lawrence jackson jr.⁄THE GAZETTE
Karen Jackson began noticing symptoms of her multiple sclerosis in August of 1994.

When you think of multiple sclerosis, think of Karen Jackson of Ft. Washington.

‘‘I want people to put a face on this disease,” said Jackson, a volunteer for the National Capital Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which is now registering volunteers for a walkathon in April. ‘‘I don’t mind when people stop and ask me questions. That’s a way of getting the message out.”

M.S. is thought to be an autoimmune disease, according to the M.S. Society. The body’s defense system attacks the fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers of the brain, optic nerves and spinal cord. Although many people have heard of the disease, they often don’t have a good understanding of what it is, Jackson said.

‘‘That’s why we do walkathons, to educate people,” she said. ‘‘It’s good to raise money, but we also need to increase awareness.”

One reason the public doesn’t understand M.S. is because the disease manifests differently.

‘‘One person who has the disease can’t walk, whereas another person can have the disease but you’d never know it,” she said. Diagnosing M.S. also is difficult. ‘‘You can’t take a blood test to find out if you have it. Doctors will run multiples tests and review your history to find out the kinds of symptoms you’re displaying and the length of time between episodes.”

Falls are a classic sign of M.S., she said, along with numbness, tingling, or problems with balance and mobility. People with M.S. also can experience blurred or double vision or such invisible symptoms as mood swings or forgetfulness.

Karen Jackson
How she makes a difference: Jackson is a volunteer for the National Capital Chapter of the National MS Society, which serves the metropolitan area. The society seeks participants and volunteers for a walkathon, which takes place at six locations April 1 and April 2. For information call 202-296-5363 or visit www.MSandYou.org.
Jackson, who was diagnosed at age 35, started noticing problems with her gait, balance and mobility in August 1994. Because she was an athletic trainer and worked for an orthopedic surgeon, she had an inside track on exploring possible reasons for her symptoms. Even so, it took time to identify the disease.

‘‘The first neurologist didn’t think I had M.S. because my symptoms were so vague,” she said. ‘‘The second didn’t think I had it because it was benign for a couple of years. Fortunately, however, it didn’t take years and years for me to receive a diagnosis. At least I knew what the battle was so I could explore how to fight it.”

Women typically are diagnosed with M.S. between the ages of 30 to 60 years old. However, plenty of men can get the disease too, Jackson said. The M.S. Society’s fund-raising efforts help provide a wealth of information and services to those living with the disease.

‘‘Our fundraising comes back to assist those in need,” Jackson said. ‘‘The funds don’t get pushed in some coffer somewhere.”

The chapter, for example, provides a lending closet and ride sharing. The chapter also assisted Jackson in finding ways to telecommute to her job, located in Arlington. Jackson, who works three days in the office, now uses 20 years’ worth of professional training in a different way.

‘‘As an athletic trainer you’re there to protect and serve the athletes,” she said. ‘‘If a child went down on a playing field I might not be able to get to him, so now I use my medical background in an administrative setting.”

Volunteering benefits Jackson by helping her maintain independence. She assists the M.S. Society by calling previous walkathon volunteers to enlist support. She speaks to the public to increase awareness of the disease and occasionally will talk to a person who’s been newly diagnosed with M.S.

‘‘A person might be in denial, or perhaps they aren’t displaying symptoms,” she said ‘‘People say I have a great attitude, but the way I see it, you can choose to be miserable or choose to get on with life.”

Indeed, Jackson faces her challenge head on with gratitude and acceptance. She stays positive most of the time by recognizing that others with the disease might have to deal with obstacles that are even more formidable than her own. And although she doesn’t know how M.S. will affect her in the future, she realizes that no one can predict what tomorrow will bring.

‘‘If you have a negative attitude, no one will want to help you,” Jackson said. ‘‘If you say, ‘Yes, I have some difficulties, but we can work through them,’ people will respond positively. I want to put my energy into positive things.

‘‘When I’m in the grocery store, I ride around in one of those little scooters,” she added. ‘‘If a person offers to get something off of a top shelf for me, sometimes I’ll accept assistance. Other times I might say, ‘No, but thanks for asking,’ so the person will be willing to help someone else.”