The Herald Bulletin

April 30, 2013

MS sufferer graduates from college after 10-year battle

By Baylee Pulliam
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — For most college students, graduation represents a victory — over tough classes, professors and countless hours of studying.

But for Toni Wilson, it’s much more than that. When she walks across the Ball State University stage Saturday, it will mark a triumph in a 10-year battle against her own body.

“Now that it’s over, I kind of just want to yell,‘I did it, I finally did it,’” said Wilson, her shoulders back and capped head high, hands crossed over her polyester graduation gown.

Wilson started college at Indiana University Bloomington in 2003, where she studied medicine — her “one love,” she says — with dreams of becoming a doctor.

Those dreams soon faded, in a wave of blurry vision and intense pain that hit right after her first semester final exams.

“It all could be blamed on something else,” she said. “You know, stress, or I’m just tired.”

But it wasn’t.

Wilson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a sometimes crippling disease that can cause vision loss, tremors, loss of balance and muscle spasms as the body sends immune cells to attack its own nervous system.

Worse, it’s markedly unpredictable. Wilson’s class attendance and work were punctuated by her sporadic relapses. Once, she was hospitalized for a month-and-a-half, her right side paralyzed.

While she was able to make up the work, attendance eventually forced her to withdraw from IU, she said. She transferred to Ball State, which was closer to home and her family and friends in Anderson.

It’s also closer to the St. Vincent Anderson Regional Hospital MS Clinic, where after nine years, they’re “pretty much family,” Wilson said. “It’s like a second home.”

The clinic workers talk to her. They give her hugs and even started a collection of Disney movies for her to watch when she comes for treatment.

“It’s intimate,” she said. “I feel like they really, really care about me.”

Tysabri and Yoga help

Since there’s no known cure for MS, “all we can do is treat the symptoms,” said registered nurse Roxanne Kluesner, who coordinates the clinic. “Some people see improvement, but for the most part, the goal is just to keep it in check.”

Wilson’s been through a battery of medications, eventually settling on one called Tysabri. “It’s been pretty good,” Kluesner said, when combined with other lifestyle changes such as avoiding stress and keeping the body temperature cool.

“Yoga is also really helpful,” Wilson said, although she can no longer do soccer, track, softball, karate, or any of the many other sports she once played due to the risk of relapse.

“It’s an ongoing battle,” Wilson said, “But over all, things seem to be pretty controlled.”

Where once she was down to one or two classes per semester, she’s now up to four, centering on risk management, insurance and finance.  Wilson had to abandon her dream of practicing medicine for fear of an unexpected flare-up.

But even if it’s not exactly what or when she’d originally wanted, Wilson said the fact she’s finally graduating is a huge accomplishment.

“There have been times when I wanted to give up,” she said. “But my family, all of them here at the clinic, they helped me. They were here in the tough times. I can’t even express how much I owe much them.”

Like Baylee Pulliam on Facebook and on Twitter @BayleeNPulliam, or call 648-4250.