Life with MS

Life with MS

Jacksonville woman pursuing new dreams after devastating diagnosis

By Tiffany Wilson

Michelle Stone

Michelle Stone was newly married and fulfilling her dream of a career in the U.S. Coast Guard when she sensed a “tingling” she’d never had before.

“I was feeling numb from the lower back down, and I became really clumsy, tripping over sidewalks,” she said.

Doctors at her Virginia Beach base thought she had a pinched nerve or potassium deficiency, but a coworker recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, found her symptoms strikingly similar to his.

After an MRI, Stone was diagnosed with MS at just 23 years old. The autoimmune disorder attacks the central nervous system, damaging nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It affects people differently, but common side effects include difficulty controlling muscles, walking, talking, seeing and reasoning. It is the No. 1 cause of disability in adults ages 20 to 40 outside of trauma.

Stone was devastated. With her husband recently relocated to a Navy base in Jacksonville and her family living in her hometown in Arizona, Michelle felt alone and scared.

“I knew that my career was over. MS is a disqualifying condition in the Coast Guard.”

The stress only made her condition worse. Her vision became blurry. She had difficulty carrying on conversations and she felt exhausted all the time. She began to struggle with walking and could barely move one of her arms.

“She was on a spiral course to losing muscle function of all four limbs at a very early age,” said Scott Silliman, M.D., a College of Medicine – Jacksonville professor of neurology who specializes in MS.

Fortunately, Silliman intervened when Stone moved to Jacksonville and came to the Comprehensive Multiple Sclerosis Center at the UF Health Neuroscience Institute – Jacksonville.

Stone said she felt like she was “going in circles” with her previous doctors and treatment plans. She finished her first year of MS treatment using a medication called Rebif, which works for some patients, but was not strong enough for her rapidly advancing condition.

Together, she and Silliman decided to switch to an aggressive medication called Tysabri, with the understanding that Stone would be tested regularly for negative side effects. She started taking it through an IV once every 28 days.

“Everything changed. I have no relapses, no new symptoms,” Stone said. “I’m basically a different person.”

Also attending physical therapy, Stone said her balance has improved. She walks easily now, has full use of her arms and doesn’t have the fuzzy mind MS once caused her to have. She exercises. And she’s pursuing new dreams: She earned her associate’s degree and is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in human resources management.

Silliman said Stone’s attitude has helped her just as much as her treatment plan.

“We’re only a part of the equation. The other part has to come from the patients, and Michelle definitely does her part,” he said. “She keeps a positive attitude and has an eagerness to get better.”

Silliman said UF’s MS program is unique in the area because of its multidisciplinary approach. In addition to seeing a neurologist, patients can work with several specialists in one visit, such as a physical therapist and a neuropsychologist.

Silliman said the future is bright for MS patients.

“I think MS is one of the most exciting fields in all of neurology. There is a lot of hope for patients as we continue

to make advances in drugs and therapies.”