Heather Gildea is the first to admit she has no experience in public speaking.
As the ambassador for the Towson Walk MS, the Cockeysville resident is ready, however, to share her story about her life since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
She will attend the walk on Sunday, April 15, and thank everyone for their support. Most importantly, she hopes to raise awareness of a disease she knows all too intimately.
"It was a life-altering experience," Gildea said of being diagnosed with the disease a year ago at age 24. "I learned a lot about myself and about patience. Patience is a big thing."
Multiple Sclerosis, MS, is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and the spinal cord. For reasons unknown, MS causes the myelin sheath — or nerve coverings — to strip away.
When two "live" nerves come together, they "short" and lose the message they carried, Gildea said. The effects of a flare-up vary from person to person. Gildea has had back pain, forgetfulness, numbness and trouble moving. She also suffers from fatigue and a feeling of being "dragged down."
"Every day is different," Gildea said. "I never know what is going to happen."
The former day care teacher had to leave her job after being diagnosed with MS, because her medications shut down her immune system. She is currently not allowed to drive, and has moved back home with her parents.
"It was just a horrible time," said Sharon Gildea of the past year watching her daughter cope with the diagnosis. "She lost most of her friends. She had to move home. ... We haven't had a month without a problem. We're in the monitoring stage."
Things are looking brighter, Gildea said. After her first treatment plan — a combination of drugs and vitamins— left her "allergic to the world," her second treatment plan is working so far, Gildea said.
While there is no cure for MS, people can go into remission when their treatment is able to reduce flare-ups.
"At first, it was intimidating to go out in society," Heather Gildea said. "It is really hard to do things fast. I do better when I take my time and am not running. You have to be patient with yourself, with the disease and with the doctors."
As ambassador for the walk, Gildea hopes to bring more attention to a disease she knew nothing about before her diagnosis. She hopes that more support groups form in the area for people her age, and that research continues to move toward a cure.
She also hopes support groups form for caregivers as well.
"It takes a lot just to take care of you (the patient)," Gildea said. "I talk to my parents, and they ease my anxiety. My mom sees it from the outside looking in. She's helped me stay on a balanced diet. It's a lot of work to keep up with (all the appointments)."
This is the 23rd year for the walk in Towson. Last year, $1 million was raised from 10 walks in the state. This year, the goal for nine walks is $1.2 million, according to Ellen Hannibal, marketing manager for the National MS Society, Maryland Chapter.
"Towson is our biggest site," Hannibal said. "We get about 1,200 people."
Sitting on the love seat in her family's home, Gildea smiles easily while talking about her past year. Rubbing her dog Shyla's paws, she knows her life isn't easy, but she's ready to face its challenges.
"I used to be very active and work all the time," Gildea said. "It took me a year, but I've finally found peace with myself and the disease. It is what it is. Enjoy life as best as you can."
Walk to fight MS
The Towson Walk MS will be Sunday, April 15, at Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium. Registration opens at 9 a.m., and the walk starts at 10 a.m. The 5k walk is on an accessible route, and the event includes breakfast, lunch and entertainment. Registration is free at http://www.walkMSmaryland.org but participants are encourages to raise money through pledges. All participants will receive a 2012 Walk MS bracelet, and anyone who raise $100 or more will receive a T-shirt.
For more information, call 443-641-1200. To register, go to http://www.walkmsmaryland.org.