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Sunday, January 15, 2012

To Be Inspired ...

Wendy Booker and the dog team in North Pole

BOSTON - JANUARY 14, 2012 -- It's two weeks into the new year, do you know where your resolutions are?

Wendy Booker does and she's keeping her promises. Booker is currently skiing to the South Pole and is ten days into a 17-day ski and sledding expedition which will complete the second leg of her amazing, three-prong, top of the bucket-list, mission impossible-type goal of tackling the Polar Trilogy.  In April 2011, she booked to the North Pole and accomplished that feat with the little help of some Alpo and a determined team of canines. Come springtime this year or next, the vast ice covered tundra of Greenland will be in her sight to complete the three-part goal.

The Polar Trilogy attempt comes after a series of marathon runs, including Boston and its famed Heartbreak Hill, along with her mountain climbing treks which now includes successfully scaling six of the "Seven Summits," the highest mountains on each of the seven continents.

And, oh yeah, Wendy Booker, a 57-year old mother of three who lives in Boston and grew up in Westchester County, NY, has MS. 

In June of 1998, Booker was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) after experiencing balance problems, blurred vision and numbness on her left side. Multiple sclerosis is a terrible condition which affects the body's central nervous system, the brain and spinal cord. MS is caused by damage to the myelin sheath, the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells. When this nerve covering is damaged, nerve signals slow down or stop.

The nerve damage is caused by inflammation and when the body's own immune cells attack the nervous system. This can occur along any area of the brain, optic nerve and spinal cord. The exact cause the disease is unknown but researchers have made significant strides in treating MS since the mid-1990s. . The most common thought is that a virus or gene defect, or both, are the cause but environmental factors may play a role. It is more likely to occur when there is a family history of MS, and, in general, more women are affected by MS than men. Booker's form of MS is RMSS which is characterized by partial or total recovery after attacks, also known as relapses or flares. Hers is the most common form of MS as approximately 85% of the people with MS initially begin with a relapsing-remitting course.

Upon being diagnosed in '98, Booker openly admits to following the very typical human response of picturing herself in a wheelchair and falling victim to the debilitating condition. She spoke of taking time to come to terms with the diagnosis. After that, she told a Rye, NY based reporter for AOL-Patch, "It's what happens after you get up from the couch that matters."

That's when Booker took charge of the rest of her life. A casual runner, she decided to enter a marathon to challenge herself and raise awareness for people living with MS.  One marathon in the year 2000 became two, then three. 

"We called ourselves, the 'Back of the Packers,' said Booker a few days before departing on her current jaunt to the South Pole. "I was so humbled to be running with them.  Saucony, the shoe company, took 26 people with interesting stories, like my MS story, and called us the "Saucony 26," and while there were some good stories at the front of the race with the elite runners, the really cool stories were those about the people suffering in the back of the pack.

"I have my personal name for it and I call it the 'Wheaties Box phenomenon' and that is a term that describes the fact that we, as Americans, unfortunately, only embrace the winner, the gold medalist. In a race when first and second are decided by a hundredth of a second, nobody remembers who came in second. It is such a fleeting, fleeting moment.  You get on that Wheaties Box and everybody knows you, but tomorrow? Nobody can remember."

Like most, Booker is drawn to the human interest stories, the story behind the story.  And hers is certainly one to be told.

In 2002, at the age of 46, Booker joined a team of climbers with MS who were attempting to climb Mt. McKinley in Alaska. The first attempt did not bring her to the summit, but her next trip, in 2004, did, and she reached the top of the mountain on the second try and, in doing so, Wendy became the first woman with MS to ever conquer the 20,320-foot summit of Mt. McKinley, also known as Denali.  She proved to the world that her MS condition would not keep her from pursuing her dream and she related her experience of scaling Mt. McKinley to Jerry Milani, an outdoor sports columnist for Bleacher Report, saying, that it reflected her past experiences with MS.

"It’s hard, it’s steep, it’s scary, we don’t always get to the top, and sometimes, we have to do things more than once," she said.

Since that climb, she has reached the highest summit of six of the seven biggest mountains on each continent—Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Elbrus, Mt. Aconcagua, Mt. Vinson Massif and Mt. Kosciuszko—with only Mt. Everest keeping her short of her goal of seven-for-seven. Mount Everest because of its height and extreme weather, forced her to turn back twice, but she remained passionate and is considering another attempt somewhere in the future.

"I like the human interest side of a story," she said. "What happens when you don't make it to the top of Mt. Everest? I wanted to roll over and die, but somehow, we re-create ourselves and we keep on going," she said looking back at her goal to scale the largest mountain in the world.
How, on earth, is it possible to have a woman, diagnosed with MS in 1998 run a slew of marathons, climb the highest mountains and ski/sled terrain that makes Lambeau Field in Green Bay (Wisconsin) seem like Waikiki Beach (Hawaii)?

Wendy committed to a healthy diet, exercise and a daily dose of COPAXONE® -- a glatiramer acetate injection which she "self injects" without reservation everyday.  She has special equipment and storage for the drug when she is in the frigid confines of a mountain climbing expedition and speaks of taking the injection the same way one might consider popping a "One-a-Day" vitamin. 

At one point, in 2006, early on in her fame as a marathoner, climber and inspirational speaker who works with others facing similar daunting tasks in daily life, she was asked to describe what "Woman Power" meant to her. "While I can always appreciate the fluff question, that question was "Wow, what a cool question.

In '06, I looked at myself as a product of so many of the women who went before me. And that is me, in particular because I was born in the '50s (the era of June Cleaver of the TV show "Leave it to Beaver' fame) and then the '60s when Gloria Steinem came in, then the '70s when we really began to make a statement of who and what we are.  I found the 80s to be the hardest and that was when I chose to be a 'stay at home' Mom, but that was when we faced the crossroads and half of us went to work and the other half stayed at home and neither were sure they made the right decision.

"We looked at each other, one feeling guilty they left their kids and the other saying they weren't making any impact and I'm not making any money and therefore, I'm not worthy.

"Now, jump to 2011-12, and aren't I lucky that because of all of that, after 40 years - the 40 years of Title IX actually, I am truly the impact of that...the result.

"Now I can say, 'Look at the choices you have.  Don't be limited by being told no, you are too old, you have breast cancer, you have MS. Now, you have a choice, you can go right or left and that is what I think is the power that women have.'

"I have to credit a lot of luck and a lot of people who have come across my path along the way," said Booker when she looks back at those ultra-important 40 years of time."

"I work, now, as a motivational speaker which is a joy, but I have my journey with MS and doing all this stuff, I say to people - what I call the 'Three S's. Self discovery, serendipity and stubbornness.  And all three play into who and what I am.  And serendipity is a fortuitous accident or luck and it's hard for people to believe you can put MS and fortuitous accident in the same sentence. But, I always think it made me more perceptive and receptive to the things going on around me that I would have missed.
"I get diagnosed for MS in the '90s, but prior to 1993, there were no drugs for this, there was nothing. When you were diagnosed prior to 1993, you were told to go home and prepare for a wheelchair.  I come boppin' along in the late '90s just as these drugs were put on the market.  I was put on one by a fabulous doctor at Harvard, one of the top in the country -- how lucky I am that I was living right here (in the greater Boston area). I get on this drug and in 14 years, I've never looked back."

The reason?

"In 1993, the first of the disease modifying therapies came out," explained Booker.  "Mine was the second or third to come out.  I asked the doctor, Dr. Weiner in Boston, 'If I were your wife or daughter what would you put me on?' And he put me on Copaxone, and I had no side effects.  I've had a few bumps in the road, some flare-ups, but, basically very few problems and 14 years is a long time. The drug is showing a very good track record.  It is easily tolerated.  The beauty for an MS patient is that they can switch.  If they are not happy with the one they are on, they don't feel well or they are getting a reaction from the injection, they can change.  My advice is to get with a doctor, a neurologist who you can talk to openly because that neurologist is going to be your team leader.

"It's afforded me the ability to go on living my life.  I don't think about it. If I can inject at 20,000 feet on a glacier, it's nothing when I'm home. It's like brushing your teeth. Anyone with MS can also call the drug manufacturer and get advice or information 24 hours a day, say you are having a tough time at the start with giving yourself an injection, they'll come out and help train you. They'll also help you with the finances, the insurance and its incredible user-friendly because the patient is so involved with the treatment."

"There's a lot out there. The national MS Society does an amazing amount of research with the money they raise.  They are doing studies on childhood MS and they are doing a great deal of research which is how these drugs come to market. And, then there's an organization out of Florida called the MS Foundation which is great for the patients.  They do a thing called, "Cruise for the Cause." for people with MS.

"Sometimes, I realize that I am the new face of multiple sclerosis. Everybody should be that face. So, I decided to launch my speaking to say, 'I'm here to motivate, educate and challenge. Get on one of these drugs," says Booker. "It's totally made this illness not what we remember.  It ain't your momma's MS!  Now, with MS, the sky's the limit."

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