Wendy Booker is back at sea level after her second attempt to summit Everest last month.
After being diagnosed with MS in 1998, in her early 40s, Wendy says she was scared – scared of winding up in a wheelchair, scared of the unknown, in uncharted territory. “I figured I’d better start working on my bucket list.” So even though she’d never been athletic before (sound like anybody else we know?), she trained for and ran the Boston Marathon. Eventually she hit on the idea of climbing the highest mountain on each continent: the Seven Summits. She knocked off six of them, but after two tries at Everest, in 2009 and 2010, she’s come to the conclusion that six and a half summits is just going to have to be enough.
Here are her own words on why she turned back:
The hardest choice I have had to face in the 12 years I have been living with MS was to turn back from a summit attempt on Everest? twice. I have had to recognize that on Everest I reached my boundary- sustained life above 17,000 feet, where the air is painfully thin and took my body to a place where it couldn?t function with Multiple Sclerosis. My MS could not tolerate the lack of oxygen to the brain and the enormous daily temperature fluctuations on the mountain. Everyday while others on my team grew stronger I was getting weaker. I noticed new symptoms I had not had before as well as a severe increase of those I have lived with for years.
Full entry: Then There Were Four …
I had the opportunity to talk to Wendy recently. I found that she is nothing if not metaphor-minded. If she can’t get to the highest spot on the planet, she’ll go to the top of the world instead. She’s planning to attempt the North Pole next year.
As people dealing with MS, what can we learn from Wendy? Is she saying, “Jump up out of your bed and climb a mountain, you’ll feel better?” I don’t think so (I certainly hope not). In our conversation, she volunteered that she knows that climbing mountains will not keep MS at bay, and said that what she hopes to show people is that no matter what challenge you’re facing, there is something you can do that will take your mind off it, that will put you in control. She acknowledges that everyone has to grieve, to have a period of mourning after something like an MS diagnosis, but says, “You can’t stay there! Find your passion – find something that takes your mind away from MS.” Her passion is extreme adventure, challenging her body to things she never guessed it could. Your passion, she says, might be knitting, or learning Spanish, or taking beautiful photographs.
She is asking people to contribute stories about what she calls their mountains (second form on the linked page), and she’s posting their stories.
In Wendy’s world view, the mountain appears to be both the obstacle and the goal, and for her personally, a certain amount of pain and difficulty seem to be integral to her sense of accomplishment. I’m less metaphorical, more literal and definitely more pain averse. I’d ask two questions instead: “What do you want to do?” and “What’s keeping you from doing it?”
An MS diagnosis is a horrible shock. It’s a sucker punch that leaves you feeling like whatever it was you had planned for your life isn’t gonna happen. It can take months and years of grieving and anger to get to the point where you realize that even though you may not be having the life you planned, you can have something else. It can be extraordinarily difficult to let go of beliefs about how you should live, hard to find out about alternative ways of doing things.
I started doing things differently before I realized what my goals were (“What do you want to do?”). I want to continue to participate in life’s activities, and I want to be healthier. In order to do those things (“What’s keeping you from doing it?”), I have used all sorts of mobility devices (cane, crutches, wheelchair), because my goal is to get to the grocery store, get to work, get to the movies. Your goal might be different. Your goal might be to stay vertical and ambulatory as long as possible, in which case you might be getting to the kitchen, or the mailbox, rather than to the grocery store, but doing it upright and walking. Neither one of us is wrong.
You can still work, climb, play, love, have children…but it might be more challenging. You may need more help. You will need to take care of yourself. None of these things can prevent MS progression but you can still live well now. And you don’t have to climb a mountain unless it’s something you really want to do.