Young student leader steps up to face struggle with MS

2013-03-03T00:00:00Z 2014-07-30T17:17:17Z Young student leader steps up to face struggle with MSStephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Braden Whitaker woke up one morning during his sophomore year of high school and had trouble speaking.

He tried to shrug it off, but as the day wore on, it became clear something wasn't right.

"I couldn't write very well," said Whitaker, who was 16 at the time. "My friends and I were kind of joking around about it because I didn't know what it was."

By the end of the day, the Tucson teenager couldn't move one side of his face.

It turned out Braden was showing the first signs of multiple sclerosis, a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system. There is no known cause, though it's believed to be an autoimmune disease where the body's immune system attacks its own tissues.

Like many young people with the disease, Braden's diagnosis did not come swiftly. His first symptoms showed up May 3, 2011, but his diagnosis was more than a year later -this past September, at the start of his senior year at Ironwood Ridge High School, where he is student body president.

MS is typically an adult disease, and the majority of support programs and research target older people. That's one reason Braden has decided to become a public advocate for MS patients. It's why he assembled a team of friends and family called Braden's Band to walk Saturday in the annual Tucson Walk MS. As of Friday, he had raised $865 toward his goal of $1,000.

Braden, 18, is an unlikely MS patient for many reasons.

Those affected are usually women between ages 20 and 50. Among children and teens, girls are six times more likely to be affected than boys, said Dr. Francisco Valdivia, a Tucson neurologist. Valdivia estimates about 10 percent of MS patients are children and teens.

A diagnosis is often challenging in the younger group because doctors don't expect them to have it. Also, symptoms can be different in children, making it harder to spot. But time is of the essence in younger patients because the disease often manifests more seriously than in adults, he said. Many people with MS eventually need to use a cane or a wheelchair because of weakness and balance problems.

"There is no cure for MS, but we do change the progress of the disability. The sooner the better to slow it down," Valdivia said

The day of his first episode, Braden feared he was having a stroke. He called his mother to come to school and pick him up.

An MRI revealed a lesion in his brain. He was told he either had brain cancer or he'd had a stroke.

"It was horrific," recalled his father, Dr. Brad Whitaker, a local podiatrist.

Braden spent five days in intensive care while doctors checked him for a variety of things, including multiple sclerosis. He had one brain lesion that looked like it could be multiple sclerosis, but a diagnosis is usually not made unless there is more than one lesion separated by space or time.

"We thought the first symptoms were a single episode and that it wouldn't happen again," said his mother, Tammy Whitaker.

He set about rehabilitating. He learned to write and speak again.

"In April of my junior year my toe went numb, but I'm a wrestler so I thought it was that," he recalled.

He continued with his life and in February 2012 he fulfilled a longtime goal by getting elected president of the Ironwood Ridge student body. He wrestled, ran track and field and was a member of the National Honor Society.

But on the second day of his senior year, he woke up with a numb hand.

"I thought it would go away, but it didn't," he said.

He is a member of the spirit squad at Ironwood Ridge. After a high-energy night when the football team had won, he came home to bad news.

His MRI showed two more lesions - one in his brain and one in his spine. A spinal tap showed abnormalities in his spinal fluid.

"My dad told me the test results, and I knew exactly what it meant," he said. "It was really difficult for me. I don't know if I will be paralyzed or end up in a wheelchair. I've always been so active, it's what I'm defined by. To think that might be taken from me is really hard."

He immediately started taking medication to lessen his symptoms and hopefully to prevent the disease from progressing.

"Multiple sclerosis makes me really tired if I don't get enough sleep," he said. "It affects how the brain transmits signals, and it's really difficult for me to stay awake in class. I have a hard time getting everything done, but it's kind of something I juggle in with my life. I'm grateful to my family and all my teachers, and everyone at school for being completely supportive."

His mother worries about the obstacles he could face. "It's the unknown that's hard to accept," she said.

But Braden says he has no choice but to be positive and do what he can to keep the symptoms at bay. He and his family, which includes six siblings, are grateful that he has not had any serious symptoms since his diagnosis. He recently earned a Prudential Spirit of Community award for volunteerism and an academic recognition from the Coca Cola Scholars Foundation.

MS has given Braden a new purpose - raising awareness about the disease and supporting research. He hopes to attend Brigham Young University and is considering a career as a doctor, maybe a neurologist.

"I feel like I'd really be able to connect with my patients," he said.

If you go

The two-mile Walk MS Tucson is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 9, at Reid Park. The start/finish line is located at Ramada 22 at the corner of Camino Campestre and Country Club Drive. Registration opens at 8 a.m. and the opening ceremony is set for 9 a.m.

The dollars raised support programs and research for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. A cause and cure for the disease are yet to be discovered. About 8,000 Arizonans are affected by the disease. To donate, register or get more information, go to walkaza.nationalmssociety.org/site/TR?fr_id=20656&pg=entry or call Rachel Zuckerman, who is the Tucson liaison for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at 325-0755.

Local MS support groups

• A self-help group for Tucson residents with multiple sclerosis meets on the second Wednesday of every month from 10 a.m. to noon at Casas Adobes Congregational Church, 6801 N. Oracle Road.

More information is available on the group's Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/Northwest-Tucson-MS-Support-Group/254997761219190

• An evening self-help group meets on the second Wednesday of every month from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Center for Neurosciences, 2450 E. River Road. For more information, call 795-7750.

Symptoms of MS

Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs, partial or complete loss of vision, double vision or blurring of vision, tingling or pain, tremor, fatigue and dizziness.

Source: The Mayo Clinic

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or sinnes@azstarnet.com

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