The shocking headline seemed to jump out at me from the computer screen: “Brit scientist could be about to CURE multiple sclerosis and provide hope for millions.” Really? Did I dare hope for a cure after living with aggressive multiple sclerosis (MS) for more than 30 years? What was incurable would become curable?! No, the headline said could. I must not let my imagination get the better of me and start fantasizing about being healthy and able to walk again. For decades I have not allowed myself to dream those dreams.
Diagnosed at age thirty, I was dragged kicking and screaming into a terrifying world of serious neurological disease: I lost sensation in my hands and legs. I couldn’t distinguish hot from cold or sharp from blunt. My vision was threatened. On a number of occasions, I lost my ability to speak. I lost the use of my right arm and hand, and my legs. I would go spastic. Muscle spasms in my back were so powerful and painful that my spine twisted and left me with a permanent curvature. I would go incontinent. My hearing was affected. These attacks—and many more—came with no guarantee they would ever remit. Happily, most did, but remissions would not return all previous functions. Eventually I ended up in an electric wheelchair, where I have been for many years. The disease got so bad that at one point I was teetering on the edge of quadriplegia! The terror of aggressive multiple sclerosis affected every aspect of my life save one: love.
Those who loved me lifted up my worth, even when I doubted it. They helped me regain a sense of my natural human dignity when I had lost sight of it and didn’t care anymore. My grief was so profound and unimaginable, my heartache so sharp, my sorrow so deep, that my judgment became dangerously clouded. I’m so glad that in the 1980s there wasn’t a Jack Kevorkian to offer his diabolical service of assisted suicide. If I had not been surrounded by the love of God, my family, and a Christian community, I might have succumbed at a low point and taken my life. I would never have known my five beautiful grandchildren.
Dire circumstances present stark choices. In the darkest night of my soul, I remembered the ancient choice Moses gave the people of Israel: “I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” I could choose life in the circumstances of my new realities, or I could curse life, and its Giver, and choose suicide. One is a path of obedience and acceptance, of consolation and, ultimately, of being surprised by joy (to borrow a phrase of C.S. Lewis). The other is a path of disobedience, a rejection of the Giver of life, which ends in despair.
I chose to cross a treacherous raging river of grief, hoping to find a new me, one who could incorporate my disability. The old me was gone as surely as if I had died.
Saint John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), was an important source for me in my search to understand my anguish. Salvifici Doloris is Latin for “Redemptive Suffering.” That precious Apostolic Letter introduced me to the idea that if I relinquished ownership of my pain to Christ, He might unite my suffering with His own. He could, in fact, give meaning and purpose to my suffering. That is what happened, and it continues to this day.
Multiple sclerosis was the perfect tool to smash my colossal pride and ridiculous sense of self-sufficiency, both of which had kept my faith shallow and small. (It was hard to be proud and self-sufficient when someone else had to dress me, tie my shoes, and cut the meat on my plate.) A new me began to emerge from the waves of my grief, no less vital than the previous man—just different. My chronic illness and serious disability became an integrated part of my life and faith journey. I no longer let them dominate my life.
Instead, suffering taught me how to make an unqualified surrender, to trust Christ when the stakes are horribly high, and to accept what was once unacceptable. Christian suffering on earth is part of the joy of heaven. That’s how it works. Is it worth it? Yes, I believe it is. The long journey in my wheelchair has brought me to a point where I can accommodate that which I cannot control. There is consolation and peace—I am content.
Now, at this late stage in my journey, comes the very real possibility of a cure for multiple sclerosis.
Dr. Su Metcalfe is senior research associate with the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at Cambridge University in England. Her specialty is cellular and molecular neuroscience and something called nano-medicine, known around the world as a new era in clinical medicine. This cutting-edge technology manipulates immune cells and targets a stem-cell growth factor called a LIF (Leukemia inhibitory factor). Dr. Metcalfe discovered that a LIF controls a “binary switch” inside immune cells that turns the immune system on and off. For people with MS, the immune system mistakes the fatty coating that insulates nerves as foreign and attacks it. In addition to regulating the person’s immune responses, LIF plays a major role in repairing tissue in a damaged brain and in keeping brain and spinal cord healthy. It is a natural regenerative medicine.
“We can treat auto-immune disease,” Dr. Metcalfe explained in the article I had seen online, “and we’ve got something to treat MS, which attacks both the brain and spinal cord. So you have a double whammy that can stop and reverse auto-immunity, and also repair the damage caused in the brain.” Is there is an application for advanced MS? Can my brain and spinal cord be repaired after thirty years? Clinical studies are scheduled to begin in 2020 and may answer those questions, but I will be an old man.
So what am I to make of this plausible and promising cure for multiple sclerosis? I could allow myself to feel swindled. After all, I will never know what I could have achieved in a career that was cut short when I was 38 years old. I could feel angry that I could not physically participate in the lives of my children and grandchildren. My wife endured decades of sorrow watching me degenerate. I must not let bitterness take root in me. Rather, I can join the anguish I have experienced to Christ’s redemptive suffering. His life was also cut short. If my MS is cured, I must incorporate that, too, as part of my life journey toward heaven.
If the storms and terrors of neurological disease subside and I enter a calm after the storm, I suspect I will hear a small voice within saying, “Be still, and know I am God.” And now I can dare to dream that dream. Another post-disability man will emerge. The young man who entered a wheelchair will stand as an old man, cross the room, and ask his wife, whose hair has turned white, “May I have this last dance.” And yet another self will await me when I step across the threshold from this life to the next.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet be revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1John 3.2.)
“Brit Scientist Could Be About to CURE Multiple Sclerosis and Provide Hope for Millions,” http://www.mirror.co.uk/science/brit-scientist-could-cure-multiple-10572223
 Deuteronomy 30.19.
 Psalm 46.11.