22 years ago, Airdronian Gena Ritz started noticing that her feet and lower legs were becoming numb to the touch. Her first instinct was to assume she had pinched a nerve at work. She happened to mention it to her doctor almost as an afterthought during a visit with her daughter.
"The questions were how long have you felt this way [and so on and so forth]. Immediately, your doctor will do the process of elimination, thinking the worst. So they're thinking, a brain tumour, stroke, a blood clot, something neurological for sure."
After multiple consults, the diagnosis came back as an inflammation of the spinal cord, also known as transverse myelitis. Once Ritz heard the diagnosis and was informed by doctors that it was idiopathic, meaning it was a one-time occurrence with no known origins, she wasn't particularly worried, in fact, she started to regain sensation back in her limbs, until the numbness spread.
"Before it was mostly knees to toes, but this time, it was from my belly button to my toes. So now I was a bit more concerned," she said.
At 30 years old, Ritz was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). At the beginning of her diagnosis, she said many of her symptoms did not manifest themselves physically. Her disability was invisible and so was her struggle.
"It was a frustration because you couldn't see it and I was feeling it. When I tried to explain it, it was hard for people to understand. Yet it was a blessing in disguise because it was not seen by the outside world. So they could treat me see me and as a normal person."
Ritz didn't share her diagnosis outside a very select few family and friends and said that in many ways she was in denial about the disease. In 2015, she would have another flare-up, which left her dragging her foot, though she tried her best to disguise it.
"Because I'm athletic, they would think I hurt my leg in the gym. I was fibbing; covering up and people at that point could buy it," Ritz said. "It was pride. I didn't want to be anything else than who I was. I didn't want the disease to defeat me and so in my mind, in order to defeat the disease was to pretend it wasn't there."
As her MS progressed, however, the physical symptoms became more pronounced and she could no longer mask it.
"I think that when I had to come forth to share the diagnosis many people in my close circle, handled it all differently. A lot of people in my close circle detached because they couldn't deal with that part of Gena. I was really sad. But now I understand; it doesn't make it right, but I understand it. Some people can't handle that."
Ritz, who is now in her 50s said that there were inevitable changes in what she could and couldn't do. A sports enthusiast, she is no longer able to go downhill skiing or play her best game of golf. With the sacrifices, sometimes unwilling ones, there has also been acceptance and sombre reflection.
"I believe now that if I would have dealt with it from the beginning, and allowed people to evolve with my disease, then my disease wouldn't be me; it would be a part of me, but not all of me. When I was struggling with a lot of my symptoms, the people around me would have had more understanding, and more compassion," she said. "In retrospect, the disease probably would have been better: better accepted by me, and better accepted by others, if I would have left them in."
Ritz observed that she has also grown to understand compassion more and what compassion from the public can mean to her.
"Just show[ing] compassion to each other period; to show humanity, like opening a door, letting somebody go in front of you in the line," Ritz said. "That compassion can go a long way with somebody with or without a disease. That goes a long way in day-to-day life for somebody like me."
She said that those who are most often willing to help her, whether it's loading groceries into the car or holding a door open, it's usually the elderly who are the most willing. She believes that many of those who have been diagnosed with MS, at least 75 per cent of them are what she calls invisible.
"They're young and they are at the prime of their life. You can't see it and a lot of them will sit there for a long time in that invisible state."
While Ritz's disability came in the form of MS, a progressive disease that she had no control over, for Corinna Taylor, her disability was the price she paid for not taking better care of her Type 2 diabetes. She would develop Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).
"I developed neuropathy in my right foot, and I got very bad nerve damage, where I could not walk on my foot," she said.
Although Taylor went through painful physical therapy, she still has not regained full mobility of her and it has taken a toll on her, especially her independence.
"That was my biggest challenge: having to rely on my friends and family. I've always been a strong person. I would be there for my friends or family in a heartbeat," she said. "And all of a sudden, now the tables have turned and I have to ask for help, and that I just wasn't that kind of person."
Like Ritz, there are sacrifices that Taylor has had to make, painful sacrifices.
"Before I got sick, I was actually going to go on holiday with my friend. We were going to travel and see different parts of Alberta. We still haven't taken that trip yet."
According to Statistics Canada, more than 5.3 million Canadians are living with some form of disability that affects their level of freedom, independence or quality of life.
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