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Navy veteran grateful for those who walk toward a cure

As he looks back today, Ricky Sykes, of Westminster, realizes he had been feeling the symptoms of what he would eventually learn was multiple sclerosis for many years before his formal diagnosis.

Serving in the U.S. Navy aboard nuclear submarines or in tropical locales, the rotating medical personnel put Sykes's intermittent symptoms of numbness over large parts of his body down to over-exertion or stress. By 2004 however, Sykes said the numbness had become too persistent to ignore.

"My self medication in terms of aspirin or Tylenol didn't seem to be working," he said. "I went to my doctor and he sent me for MRI's and I had a spinal tap and from that I was diagnosed with MS. That was the fall of 2004. I was 44."

One of the things about MS is that it tends to strike people in their prime, according to Doctor Robert Shin, a neurologist at University of Maryland Medical Center.

"A lot of neurologic disorders we see in the elderly," he said. "MS is typically diagnosed between ages 20 and 40."

A neurodegenerative disorder, MS is a result of a person's own immune system attacking and damaging nerves in the brain and spinal cord, specifically targeting myelin, the fatty sheath around nerves that Shin said can be thought of like the insulation around wires.

"Myelin is the insulation around our nerve cells that allows them to work properly, so people with MS can have lots of problems with walking, strength, feeling and balance," he said. "They have problems with almost anything that the brain and spinal cord are responsible for and they are responsible for a lot."

It's a surprisingly common disease, according to Shin, affecting one in 1,000 Americans and twice as many women as men and although there is no cure, there are now 10 different medications that can slow the progress of the disease. This is a big and very recent development.

"Up until the early to mid '90s there was no treatment for MS. It was this disease that could strike people and cause all kinds of disabilities," Shin said. "We are getting better at fighting MS. MS patients are having less attacks and having less disability over time. A lot of those advances come from research dollars being spent to do research and it has really paid off."

Sykes has seen the results of the rapidly advancing medical state of the art first hand and is currently taking an oral medication that is a far more pleasant than the treatment he was prescribed shortly after his diagnosis.

"They really have come a long way. I started out with a once a week [intramuscular shot] medication because I really didn't like the idea of doing shots once a day," he said. "The side effects of that [medication] were like serious flu-like symptoms. I would do it on a Friday and by Sunday I would start feeling better, so it kind of ruined every weekend, but I still worked during the week."

Those current treatments help slow the progress of MS, but Shin said there is current research being done that is looking at ways to reverse the damage done by the disease.

Much of the research funding to help find those future treatments will be raised through the National MS Society, which advocates for MS patients, according to Melissa Ward, community relations manager for the National MS Society Maryland Chapter.

The primary fundraiser tool for the society is the annual Walk MS events, where MS patients and their families and anyone else looking to help will raise money and walk a 5K course together in solidarity.

"We have been doing Walk MS events for 26 years. It is our primary fundraising program event," Ward said. "We ask our participants to raise funds for the society, and it's not about how many miles you walk, it's a straightforward contribution. Participants get awards when they reach certain fundraising metrics. If you raise $100, you get a T-shirt, for example."

Sykes and his wife, Sue, began attending the annual Westminster Walk MS event immediately following his diagnosis.

"I was diagnosed in the fall of 2004, and in April 2005, my wife started up a team of walkers," he said. "She has walked in every walk since, and I have participated in most. Some years I didn't feel physically up to it on the day of the walk, and so I did my part by cheering people on."

The Sykeses and their walking team will again be participating in the April 27 Walk MS event in Westminster, and Ricky Sykes said that he is personally grateful to anyone who will join in the event or has walked in the past.

"We really have come a long way, and the National MS Society and the people in the walks are very active ... I see more and more each year and I am so hopeful," Sykes said. "The people that put their hard-earned money into that donation basket, that come out to do the walk ... That's all so important."

More information and registration to donate or participate in the Westminster Walk MS event are available online.

Participating in the Walk MS events is more than just a means to raise funds for MS research for Sykes, it is also a chance to tell his story to those who may be newly diagnosed or who know very little about the disease.

"Every time I go to the walk I get to talk to people and I am open about [my having MS]," he said. "If you hold it in, people don't learn about it. The more people read and see about it, the better off we will be and the more people will be aware of it. I think that's the way things, issue get corrected. That's the way the world works."

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