WILL PINKSTON | The Sun
Lisa Gilbert, director of health information at Western Kentucky Kidney Specialists, reads through some paperwork in her office at Lourdes hospital on Feb. 18. Gilbert spent more than a decade concerned over sometimes severe neurological symptoms before physicians diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis in 2006.
Only several steps away from her parked car and Lisa Gilbert couldn’t go any farther. Her left leg had gone completely numb.
“I couldn’t even make it two parking spots up, I had to get back into my car because my leg just wouldn’t work,” Gilbert reminisced of an ill-fated trip to the store in 1996.
“I was picking up my leg to take steps and I ended up hopping back to my car. That was the first time I had something like that happen, so needless to say it scared me.”
And although that might have been the first serious complication among several years of seemingly strange and unconnected symptoms, it proved to be the first steps in a medical mystery for Gilbert and her physicians spanning more than two decades.
Gilbert, director of health information at Western Kentucky Kidney Specialists and a nurse since 1986, experienced years of curious health problems — a tingling right arm, a numb left leg or severe neck pain — but doctors couldn’t conclusively diagnose the disorder.
More than just frustrating, the unresolved issues would get worse and while repeated tests didn’t return results, Gilbert was becoming increasingly worried.
“Of course, all during this time I’m thinking I must be crazy,” she said. “Something is wrong with me but nobody can figure it out.”
Numbness in her arm would bring Gilbert into the emergency room, fearing she had a stroke and an MRI discovered herniated discs. Gilbert would receive neck surgery in 2005 to alleviate pain, but a year later she would again develop migraines and double vision.
Yet another spinal fluid test and MRI, something of a routine for Gilbert, would ultimately reveal the underlying troubles: Gilbert had been dealing with multiple sclerosis for almost 14 years.
“It was a mixture of feelings,” she said. “It was scary. I just wanted someone to tell me there really was something there, and when they did, it was almost a relief. And talking to my doctor, I said, ‘now that I know, what can we do to fix it?’”
Multiple sclerosis affects more than 2.1 million people worldwide, most often women who are nearly three times more likely to develop the disorder. Medical researchers cannot definitively prove what triggers the disabling disease, but physicians do know how MS can adversely affect the body.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the disorder causes the body’s immune system to attack its own central nervous system, damaging the protective sheaths surrounding nerve fibers, and even the fibers themselves.
The scarring that forms over the damaged tissue interrupts messages between the brain and the body, and as a result, a wide range of symptoms can manifest themselves in a seemingly unconnected pattern.
Gilbert’s experience is like many other people. Unexplained numbness or tingling might not be too concerning at first, but persistence and pain have many people turning to their family physician.
The final confirmation of Gilbert’s diagnosis in 2006 spurred her on to become actively involved in awareness campaigns in the area, hoping to raise donations for further MS research and help educate people who might be in the same boat Gilbert was only a few years ago.
To take her mission one step farther, Gilbert’s experience returns full circle to those days where walking around the house was nearly impossible. Gilbert plans to lace up her sneakers as she heads to South Carolina at the end of February to participate in the 2013 Challenge Walk MS: A three-day, 50-mile journey from Charleston to the Isle of Palms.
Bailey Preston, program and services coordinator with the National MS Society in Louisville, said across the Kentucky/southeast Indiana service area, 16 people will participate in the walk as part of The Bluegrass Hoofers team.
Raising money through fundraisers such as the walk, or local MS walks, help ensure the MS society can help provide funding for research projects and client programs. Bailey said about 40 percent of money raised goes toward national research programs and 60 percent stays local for programs that assist people in the area.
“Being a part of one of our walk or bike events and contributing to the National MS Society is what the community can do to help us move closer to a cure,” she said.
While there is no known cure for multiple sclerosis, Gilbert will set out to prove that it can’t hold her back from doing what she loves.
“MS is debilitating and I don’t want to get to that point where I can’t walk, I had gotten to that point at one time and it scared me,” she said.
“I want to walk for those who can’t, and I want to walk because I can.”
Call Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676 or follow @WCPinkston on Twitter.