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County women walk to raise awareness, funds for MS

Lisa Martin and Kati Townsley, both Carroll County residents, will be participating in Walk MS in Westminster April 26. The event is one of many designed and organized by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to raise funds and awareness for Multiple Sclerosis research, in the hopes of one day finding a cure for the disease. The two women, who met in October 2014 while serving on the leadership committee for the walk, are united by a common battle: they are both fighting Multiple Sclerosis. But while their diagnoses are the same, their individual journeys with the disease have been unique.

Martin, 24, of Manchester, said her first symptoms of MS began in 2009 with sensations of tingling and numbness, and eventually, loss of vision in her left eye, which later returned. She went to the doctor and expressed concerns that it may be MS, a disease she was familiar with because her aunt had been diagnosed with the chronic disease in the early 1990s.

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But her doctor thought it was more likely that she had Lyme disease and treated her with antibiotics, Martin said. Her symptoms did improve somewhat, but she never regained full health.

Townsley, 37, of Westminster, said the tingling sensations she felt began in 2008. She said the feeling started in her fingers, which led her to wonder if she had carpal tunnel. But very soon, the symptoms progressed, and she knew something more serious was involved.

"In the next seven to 10 days, I had lost all sensation, use and mobility on the right side of my body," Townsley said. "I knew I was in trouble."

In Townsley's case, the MS was progressing very quickly, and she received her diagnosis in less than two weeks. She started a steroid treatment the day after diagnosis. She said she is grateful that she and her doctors were able to get the disease under control.

In Martin's case, the road to a diagnosis was much more lengthy. Her symptoms didn't flare up again until May 2012.

"I woke up one morning and the entire left side of my body was pins and needles," she said. "At that point, I returned to the doctor and was really adamant about pursuing [testing for MS], and pretty much demanded that the doctor send me in for an MRI."

Her doctor ordered the MRI, and the resulting image showed several lesions on her brain. Her doctor ordered more testing before confirming that Martin's suspicions had been true.

"In order to get an MS diagnosis, they really have to rule out pretty much everything else, so it was about two months of a constant battery of testing and bloodwork and speaking with a neurologist until I actually received the official MS diagnosis," she said.

After Martin was diagnosed, she and her doctor worked through a trial of several medications before finding one that could effectively reduce her symptoms.

"MS can't be cured; however, there are drugs on the market that can slow the progression," she said.

Since finding the medication that suits her needs, Martin said, she is doing well. She said she considers herself to be in remission, a status she has held for the past year and half.

Townsley said she is also in remission, and is able to live a very active lifestyle, filled with daily workouts at the gym and participating in multiple 5Ks per year. She now relies on a holistic approach as an alternative to pharmaceutical medications, focusing on vitamins and nutritional supplements, a managed diet, exercise, acupuncture and massage therapy.

"I have a wonderful team of doctors and I surround myself with positive people, and if you looked at me today, you would never think that I was the same person as I was all that time ago," Townsley said. "You'll hear people say 'I have MS but MS doesn't have me,' and that's exactly the truth, in my case at least."

Both Townsley and Martin are helping to fight back against MS by serving on the leadership committee and participating in Walk MS this month. The three-mile walk will be held at Carroll Community College, at 1601 Washington Road in Westminster. More than 500 people are expected to take part in the event.

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Townsley said her first time participating in the walk was in 2009. That year, she decided she wanted to form a team for Walk MS in Westminster.

"I put out a call to friends and family and colleagues and coworkers and said 'I've created a team; I've never done this before, but come and let's do this,'" she said.

In 2009, she had 64 members on her team, and the number has grown to 125 to 140 each year.

Over the past seven years, her team has raised more than $25,000 through various fundraising events for the National MS Society, she said.

"I don't actually care about a dollar amount," Townsley said. "Me telling a story, me reaching out to somebody who has a new diagnoses … that's my mission, to be an ambassador."

Martin said Walk MS serves not only as a day of recognition for people whose lives have been touched by MS, but also an opportunity for those who don't know much about the disease to find out more.

"Just to have the support of a community and see people coming out and walking for a cause that's especially so close to my heart … it might not be something that touches them, but to see the community as a whole pulling together really feels great," she said.

Both women say they owe much of their recovery and positive outlook on their health to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the organization behind the Walk MS fundraisers that take place across the country.

Martin said the society has a wealth of information about the disease, helpful to both patients and their caregivers.

The organization also funds research into MS and new disease modifying treatments, she said, and provides direct assistance to patients, their families and caregivers. Martin said she's been touched personally by the society through the support groups it helps establish in communities across the country.

"I've been able to go to support meetings, and meet other patients and see what they go through," she said. "It's good to have a support system who knows what's happening to you and what it's like."

Rachel Guzman, development coordinator for the National MS Society — Maryland Chapter, said there will be 11 Walk MS events in Maryland during April, between April 11 and 26, the day of the Westminster walk.

Last year the Westminster walk had 501 participants, she said, and raised about $50,000. This year's goal is to have between 525 and 550 participants and raise $60,000.

People who would like to support the walk but do not feel physically capable of taking part are welcome to become a "virtual walker," Guzman said, and can sign up online and collect donations for the walk. The public is also welcome to come and cheer the walkers on and learn more about MS.

"I participate in the walk for both the fundraising and the awareness," Martin said. "It's amazing how many people I encounter on a daily basis that have absolutely no idea what MS is."

For more information:

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What: MS Walk

Where: Carroll Community College, 1601 Washington Road, Westminster

When: 10 a.m. April 26, with registration starting at 9 a.m.

Cost: The walk is free, but participants are encouraged to fundraise.

For more information: Visit http://www.walkMS.org or call Rachel Guzman, development coordinator for the National MS Society — Maryland Chapter, at 443-641-1223.

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