All for Annie
OVERCOMING DEBILITATING MS LEADS TO A DESIRE TO HELP OTHERS
As a senior in college – one month shy of graduation from the University of Kansas – Annie O’Dell was a very typical college student. That is until one day when she awoke with eye pain and blurry vision. Thinking nothing of it, she made an appointment with an eye doctor and that’s when everything changed.
After the eye exam, the doctor diagnosed her with optical neuritis, and told her nonchalantly, “You probably have MS.” Being at the appointment alone, Annie was terrified and immediately imagined her future life in a wheelchair, wondering if she would be able to pursue the teaching career she had prepared for over the past four years.
While Annie may have been alone with her eye doctor, she soon found herself surrounded by her family – the most amazing support system anyone could ask for. They immediately drove to Lawrence, Kan., to bring her back to Des Moines for an official diagnosis and continued medical care. She soon found herself at Mercy’s Ruan Neurology Clinic, where an MRI confirmed what her eye doctor had suspected – multiple sclerosis (MS).
MS is an autoimmune disease where lesions attack the cells covering nerves in the brain and spinal cord. These lesions affect how your brain sends signals to the rest of your body, and often lead to numbness, speech impairment, muscle problems, blurred vision and severe fatigue. Women are twice as likely as men to develop MS, and most people receive their diagnosis between the ages of 20 and 50, with the average age being 34.
For the first few years after diagnosis, Annie’s disease was manageable on medication. She was enjoying her life as a teacher, wife to husband, Matt, and being a new mother to daughter, Addy.
In 2014, things took a different turn, as Annie began having seizures. Over the next year, she was hospitalized for nearly 200 days as her condition worsened. What started with increased numbness and fatigue soon left her unable to eat or swallow, blink, or even breathe on her own. Annie and her family tried to remain positive but, she later admitted, “I honestly thought I would never be able to take care of myself ever again, let alone raise my daughter.”
Enter a “knight in shining armor,” as Annie and her family like to say. Not a real knight, of course, but a neurologist by the name of Dr. Bruce Hughes. As they would soon find out, Dr. Hughes is the kind of doctor who never gives up on his patients, and he wasn’t about to give up on Annie.
Annie vividly remembers Dr. Hughes coming to visit in her hospital room. Unable to move her head or eyes, Dr. Hughes laid next to her on the hospital bed and moved her face so he could look her in the eye. Annie recalls Dr. Hughes determinedly telling her, “We are going to make you better. We’re going to stop listening to others’ opinions on your recovery, and we’re going to get through this together.”
From that point on, hope was restored in her path to recovery, and the thing that brought Annie back around and got her moving again was, surprisingly, chemotherapy. The patient advocate and educator with the MS Program at Mercy helped get these specialized treatments approved through Annie’s insurance company and, again, her family was a huge help.
“I don’t know how someone with MS can get through it without the help and support of their family,” said Annie’s sister-in-law, Julie Andrews. “There are so many phone calls, doctors’ appointments, therapies . . . every patient needs an advocate,” she pointed out.
Seeing Annie today, you would never believe she was at one time unable to move or speak. She’s a vibrant, funny woman – and a wonderful mother who has goals for her future. “I’d love to return to teaching one day,” she admitted.
A BIKE RIDE IS BORN
As Annie and her family continued to think about her journey with MS, they felt the need to do more for the MS community. Their hope was that every local person with MS could have an advocate for their care and receive the latest technologies, therapies and treatments, just as Annie did.
“The MS Society is a great resource, but we wanted all the money to stay local – to help people with MS right here in central Iowa,” Julie said.
And with that, an idea for a bike ride was born. Annie’s family partnered with the Iowa Speedway in Newton to host an 80-, 40-, or 10-mile ride starting and ending at the speedway. All the proceeds from “Annie’s Ride” would benefit Ruan Neurology Clinic at Mercy.
On Oct. 8, 2016, under the clear blue skies of an autumn day, hundreds gathered for the inaugural Annie’s Ride. Annie was the star of the day, but the true guest of honor was Dr. Hughes, the neurologist who Annie credits with saving her life.
Annie’s Ride raised $37,000 to start the process of adding another patient advocate and new therapy resources for MS patients at Mercy Ruan Neurology Clinic.
Annie, center, has used her illness as a catalyst to help others. Annie’s Ride has raised more than $37,000 to support MS patients at Mercy’s Ruan Neurology Clinic.