Keeping secrets isn’t easy for a born-and-bred journalist like TPT’s Mary Lahammer. That’s one reason she’s both relieved and eager to share news that she’s kept within a small circle for two years: She has multiple sclerosis, or MS.
Another reason has to do with the response she’s received from some of us in that circle who are old enough to remember when MS was a sure crippler and a death sentence.
It isn’t any longer, Lahammer says.
Don’t chalk up that assurance to an athlete’s determination or a young mother’s resolve, though at a vigorous age 39, she has both. Rather, I heard a journalist’s summation of two years of in-depth reporting among world-leading MS experts at Rochester’s Mayo Clinic, where she is a patient.
Lahammer would have gone public with her MS story earlier, but for the urging of her Mayo doctors to live with the disease for two years first. Despite a much-improved prognosis since new drug therapies became available in recent years, multiple sclerosis remains unpredictable and highly variable. Doctors wanted Lahammer to experience for herself what it means to say that MS is a manageable disorder.
Now that the two years have passed, she is on a mission to tell today’s MS story, starting with Friday’s episode of “Almanac,” her regular venue.
“My job is to share information,” she said last week. “Creating a new, young, vibrant face of this disease is important to convincing people with symptoms to get diagnosed early,” which lessens the chance that MS will cause permanent disability. “If I can educate people about MS, I think I can help.”
There’s the same professional credo I knew and admired in Mary’s father, former Associated Press Capitol reporter Gene Lahammer. It holds that reliable reporting about community interests is a force for good. If that’s true of state politics and government, where the Lahammers have focused the bulk of their professional energy, it holds double when the interests in question are disease, mortality and quality of life.
In keeping with their credo, I called an MS specialist at Mayo. “How many of your patients will die of MS?” I asked neurologist Moses Rodriguez.
“None,” Dr. Rodriguez replied without hesitation. “We don’t see people dying from MS. People with MS have deficits, they have problems, but they are able to live relatively normal lives.”
That’s a stunning reversal of the prognosis he gave patients 30 years ago, when he began research and clinical practice as an MS specialist. Then, he had no drugs at his disposal, and his role was to offer coping techniques to increasingly handicapped people.
But about two decades ago, a new generation of MS drugs emerged that could slow or halt the progress of the disease and reduce or prevent “attacks,” episodes of rapid worsening of symptoms. More recently, such a drug became available in pill form. It has risky side effects, but has proven to be a blessing for patients like Lahammer who struggled with the injections that other anti-MS drugs require.
Those drugs represent a breakthrough. But they don’t reverse the damage MS does to the myelin coating of nerve cells. That’s not good enough for Rodriguez. He’s at work on clinical trials of a new drug with the potential to “remyelinate” damaged nerves.
That’s hopeful stuff for someone in Lahammer’s well-worn running shoes. But she isn’t pinning hope for a full and active life on the arrival of new drug therapies. Rather, her hope lies in today’s drugs and in her increasing awareness of the importance of maintaining a healthful work-life balance. Those are the keys to keeping MS at bay, she said.
It’s likely no coincidence that Lahammer’s first MS attack occurred at the end of the 2010 gubernatorial recount (“outside Tom Emmer’s house, the freezing cold December day when he conceded the race for governor”) and the second happened during the hot, tense government-shutdown summer of 2011. Stress, fatigue, and extremes of heat and cold often trigger attacks.
When she got the diagnosis, she cried for a day, she said. “I felt like my entire definition of self had been changed. Here I was a marathon runner, a hiker, a biker, an active mom, a journalist who worked crazy hours and who would sprint after politicians in high heels daily. It’s what I did. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to sprint ever again or wear high heels ever again.”
She hasn’t cried about her condition since, she said. Instead, she willed herself to “figure out a way forward.” She decided, “I could still do this job, but I might have to do it differently. I wasn’t going to be able to work every single 2 a.m. session. I wasn’t going to do back-to-back 20-hour days.”
She’s not the first almost-40-year-old Capitol reporter to reach that conclusion.
Lahammer’s small in-the-know circle at the Capitol has included state Rep. Rod Hamilton, a five-term Republican from Mountain Lake who’s been living with MS for 19 years. He went public when his condition worsened during a stressful 2006 re-election campaign.
“You need to listen to your doctor, listen to your family, listen to your body and keep a positive attitude,” Hamilton counsels. “I tell my constituents, ‘I’m still going to work extremely hard on your behalf, but I’m going to work differently.’ ” For example, this year he’s riding a golf cart in summer festival parades rather than jogging as he once did. But he now spends more time sitting and talking to seniors, and as a result, is better able to take their concerns to St. Paul.
Lahammer reports that regular exercise, good nutrition, adequate rest and a proper perspective on work are keeping her symptoms under control. If she does not want MS to define her, she’s learned, she cannot allow work to define her, either.
Since being diagnosed with MS, she taught herself to run again. She’s taken up skijoring with the family Labradoodle. Her family has bought a small cabin for weekend getaways. Team Lahammer will participate in MuckFest MS at Trollhaugen ski resort in Dresser, Wis., next Saturday. (“Everybody has to be soaked in heavy mud that drags you down. It’s what it feels like to live with MS.”)
The revelation for Lahammer is that when she makes time for rest, exercise, healthful food and fun, the quality of her work is as high as ever. She has won several professional awards in the last two years, underscoring that point. It’s a point that plenty of other Americans with a workaholic bent —and their employers — ought to hear.
For many, there will be irony in Lahammer’s account of how a disease once associated with death is teaching her how to live. MS is still a harsh teacher, one she would not wish on anyone else. But she can’t wait to share its lessons.
“I hate secrets. Secrets hurt,” she said.
There’s a journalist for you — one who still wears high heels.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune reporter and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.