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Reality bytes

By Maggie Courier

In this new world, I did have a fear of my multiple sclerosis being problematic; but no one had to know about it. My symptoms were mostly masked: Loss of balance? I am just clumsy. Fatigue? Everyone gets tired, especially teachers. Poor vision? I need to get new glasses.

This reasoning worked for a few years, for my colleagues, students, and even for me. I wanted to work and took on extra duties with students after the school day. I advised extracurricular clubs and I tutored. I decided to go back to college at night to work on my master’s degree. Merely teaching English classes was not enough for me – I wanted to move into the arena of teaching journalism as well. I took on advising students for the publishing of the school newspaper and the yearbook. I became an overachiever and apparently that would eventually become part of my MS-related unravelling.

As most people with MS know, we should avoid stress. Even with that knowledge buried somewhere in my mind, my ego would not abide. After a decade of my copious responsibilities at work, the mask started to come off and some symptoms began to show. I began using a cane for mobility and had to seek ADA accommodations to have my walking distances minimalized. I was given an assigned disabled parking space close to my classroom, which was also near an often-needed restroom. My vocation did not falter. I continued the hard work I believed was inspirational to many students, and that was my goal. 

As time went on, the world saw some outlandish changes that affected education and as teachers are caretakers of their students, caretaking took on a whole different level. With the horror of mass shootings in schools becoming more common, assault drills were held, emergency situations were prepared for, and teachers added many more duties to their daily repertoires. No teacher resented this – we wanted to be there for the protection of our students as well as for ourselves. But with so many more physical responsibilities, the level of stress, in my situation, became an underhanded assistant to the enhancement of my MS.

My cane changed to a walker and my afterschool activities were, for the most part, concluded. New symptoms began to rear their hideous heads. Cognition became scattered and foggy. Simple tasks – such as writing instructions on the board – had to become the duty of a willing teacher assistant. Having to abruptly leave my classroom, filled with 35 students, happened too often as there was no way to control bladder and bowel incontinence. These symptoms officially became reasons to investigate ending my career on disability.

And then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We were all sent home from school and ordered to continue the academic year online. As this was a whole new methodology for instructing, I went through an incredibly stressful crash course. The only benefit was that I was able to work from home, or so I thought. Yes, work was done from home, but that was not entirely beneficial.

That year was completed online, with all intentions to return to the classroom in the fall. Intention, yes; in actuality, no. The summer passed, with everyone quarantined and, in the fall, all schools remained closed, and all teachers would continue full-time teaching online. Again, this was new. And there was little, if any acceptable amount of time to learn this modality. We were used to planning classes in person, meeting students and parents face-to-face, but virtually? Levels of stress increased to a nearly intolerable level for me. I was assigned to instruct five different subjects. On campus, no problem. Online – big problem. I collaborated with a few colleagues to set up the mandated virtual parameters and I designed my lesson plans for that semester. I met with classes each day, though some days I was at a loss for what we had previously worked on. “Cog fog” became quite common for me, my hand/eye coordination with the laptop often became futile and there were several instances where in I had to excuse myself from instructing online to rush to my bathroom. Vertigo also became a new member of my symptom’s tribe. My fears were enveloping my ability to successfully work. These symptoms were now affecting my life, even when I was not working.

After 17 successful years, I was unhappy about having to make the choice to stop teaching, but my health had to take priority. My neurologist as well as my primary care physician agreed and documented my increasing disabilities. I was fortunate to have established a long-term disability plan and that kicked in after my sick leave time was finished. I applied for and was eventually awarded SSDI. Fortunately, all my years of hard work were “paying off.”

So again, I am faced with two negatives – worsening of MS symptoms and the end of my professional life. But I now find a positive – I have time for me. 

Although I am not able to work at a paying job, I am able to volunteer. I am happily able to spend some time working with the organization that mentored me into being the positive, strong, successful, independent MS patient that I am. I am lucky I can be home again to MS Focus: the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.