Multiple Sclerosis: Stumbling across the finish line

In 1995, while stationed as a young Marine in Yuma, AZ, I lost vision in my right eye. It was not a complete loss, but it was significant enough to be sent to Balboa Naval Hospital where I was ultimately diagnosed with Optic Neuritis, often a symptom of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

MS was discussed at that time, but I was young. I didn’t know anything about it and Google was not yet a thing. My vision eventually corrected enough to be able to function, though it has never been back to 100%.

Lady standing beside river

“A starting point, not a finish line.”

While in the Marines, I did not enjoy running, and I did it as an obligation to maintain my combat readiness… and because running was a requirement.

Fast-forward to 2014, 10 years after exiting the Marines… when I decided to get back in shape through running. Once I comfortably hit three miles, I continued to challenge my limits and ended up training for a full marathon. I actually enjoyed running—especially long distances.

It was during that training when I noticed I had begun dragging my right foot. The tread on my right shoe was smooth after just a few wears. On race day, I tripped at mile 22 and could not do anything to break my fall. My limbs did not get the message to react.

I am pretty sure I fractured my nose and, thankfully, I recovered quickly, but I still didn’t think anything was seriously wrong. I did finish the 26.2 miles that day in under my goal time of 4:20, even with that fall and medical assistance.

Marine Corps Marathon on bucket list

In 2015, I took a break from running and went back to school for my Ph.D. In 2020, I decided I was going to run the Marine Corps Marathon, a goal that has been on my bucket list for several years. COVID caused those live races to be cancelled in 2020-2021, but I continued training.

That’s when I noticed my entire right leg was dragging at different points in my runs. Foot drop (I did not yet know it by this name) and overall leg weakness were causing me to stumble, no matter how much strength training I implemented into my workout.

Additionally, I noticed that my right hand was losing mobility early in my workday. I was often unable to use my right hand and had begun to rely solely on my left to type and answer phones.

I finally ended up with a clear diagnosis in early 2021: Multiple Sclerosis.

Female Veteran in Marine Corps dress uniform

Veteran Michele Catlin

Getting diagnosed with MS did not stop me

One thing I realized is how much I accomplished while having MS and not knowing it. Getting diagnosed with MS did not stop me. It simply gave me a clear direction in which to proceed through the obstacles I was encountering.

I rely heavily on my left hand for most things. I have supportive family members who help me out when needed. I try to maintain my physical activity. I now own a set of retractable canes which are actually very common on hiking paths.

VA also issued me an ankle foot orthosis to help with my foot drop and the orthotist that I work with at VA is super supportive of my goals.

May walk next Marine Corps Marathon

There are a lot of support groups out there, many of which not only raise money for MS research but also encourage goal setting for MS Warriors. That can be biking, walking or running (short and long distances), canoeing, dancing, gardening, and many other activities for all different ability levels.

I do still intend to complete the Marine Corps Marathon someday, although that realistically may be more walking than running. The MS journey is different for everyone and the route looks different for us all. I am thankful for VA’s willingness to work with me as I navigate this diagnosis. MS has given me a starting point—not a finish line.

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