Guest post by Barb Van Walleghem, MS Walk Ambassador
It happened on a Monday—of all the days of the week, a Monday. I had been teaching my wonderful class of grade four students. The school bell rang, marking the end of class and when my life would change forever. At 3:15pm, my doctor called and asked that I come to her office right away. This was the afternoon, in 2011, that I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 43.
When I received the news, I was taken aback. I didn’t know what the diagnosis would mean for my family and me. I called my husband, Scott, and we discussed how we would tell our nine-year-old daughter. We invited my mom and dad over and, with my family all together in our living room, I broke the news. Telling my parents was the hardest: my brother has had cancer twice in his life, and hearing that another one of their children was sick was a lot for them to digest.
After receiving the diagnosis, I took a day off of work to come to terms with my life-changing news; when I returned the next day, I had a new outlook. I was relieved. The diagnosis really just answered a lot of questions about the way I had been feeling for a long time.
The compassion you don’t forget
I made it a priority to get the word out about what this disease can do to people, starting by coming out to my students about my diagnosis, and using it as an opportunity to educate them about the disease. I registered my school for the MS Read-A-Thon. We had an assembly for the grade K-6 students, and it was during this assembly that I explained what multiple sclerosis was and that as a school we would be participating in the program to help raise money to end MS. It was a truly freeing moment for me to be able to open up to my students about what I was going through. At the end of my presentation, I asked the children to raise their hands if they knew someone with MS, and a maybe one or two of the kids did. Then I raised my own hand and said, “Everyone please raise your hand because you all know me and I have MS.”
I heard a hush come over the crowd; the children were extremely respectful. More than that, they were genuinely concerned. I began to explain, “You know how Harry Potter has a scar on his head? I have scars too, but you can’t see them because they’re on the inside.” I was just very honest with them, and tried to tell them in a way that was appropriate for their age level. The children really took to this. In the weeks that followed, my students were very curious. I felt an outpouring of support – I was approached by several students asking me if I was okay. I will never forget that compassion.
My MS community: MS Walk
Even before my diagnosis, I was a part of the MS community through my participation in MS Walk. A close friend’s husband has MS, and I participated for two years after his diagnosis to show my support. Five years later, I found myself back at that familiar, heartwarming event after my own diagnosis, and it’s been an annual family tradition ever since.
Every year in Manitoba, the MS Society has a group of bagpipe players lead us out to begin the walk after opening ceremonies. Hearing the bagpipes is very special for me because my late grandmother was Scottish and she loved the bagpipes; I’m always reminded of her loving presence at the Walk as I listen. She died before I was diagnosed, but I know she would be proud of me for walking as part of the MS community, along with the courage I display.
I raise money for the MS Walk because I strongly believe in the power of people working together towards a common goal—ending MS. To me, the MS Walk is a celebration of all our efforts. Canada has the highest rate of MS in the world, and research is the key to finding a cure. In order for there to be research, money is needed—and we can all help with this. We all have a role to play in ending this disease for me and for every person who lives with it.
I have the disease, and it’s not going away any time soon. I can’t skate on the pond behind my house anymore with my family – I have to watch from the sidelines. So I make adjustments. Now I’m the one waiting there with cups of hot chocolate when they get off the ice. At first it was very difficult to accept these type of things. But I try to surround myself with people who are supportive. This is my life and I can’t change it – I want it to be as good as it can.
Barb is an #MSWalk ambassador. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, daughter and her dog, Max – all of whom she could not live without. As we move into #MSWalk season, we will be sharing more of her story, and stories from other #MSWalk ambassadors across Canada. You can be like Barb and sign up for your local #MSWalk today. Tell us in the comments: who do you walk for?