Mary Lahammer on living with multiple sclerosis

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2013 - 4:55 PM

The feared disease a local journalist lives with is no longer a death sentence.

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Mary Lahammer’s MS inner circle has included state Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake, whom she is shown interviewing at the Capitol. The two share a positive attitude toward living with MS. “You need to listen to your doctor, listen to your family, listen to your body,” Hamilton says.

Photo: JERRY HOLT, Star Tribune

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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.

  • WATCH THE VIDEO


    Almanac: "A conversation about MS" with political reporter Mary Lahammer



    ABOUT MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS:


    • An autoimmune disease that eats away at the protective myelin sheath covering nerves.

    • Loss of myelin disrupts neural communication between brain, spinal cord and other areas.


    • Common symptoms include numbness and weakness in limbs, heat sensitivity, fatigue and loss of vision.


    • No cure — yet.


    • Treatment can slow or halt the progress of the disease.


    -Source: Mayo Clinic

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