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Providing inspiration for other multiple sclerosis patients, woman doesn’t let the condition keep her down.

Posted Oct 24 2009 10:04pm
By Liana Aghajanian
Published: Last Updated Friday, October 23, 2009 4:37 PM PDT
A Massachusetts woman living with multiple sclerosis who has scaled six of the Seven Summits — and is attempting Mt. Everest in 2010 — will speak to patients in Burbank next week about her experiences living with and combating the disease through her climbs.

Wendy Booker, who was diagnosed in 1998, will be joined at Acapulco restaurant Monday by Dr. Regina Berkovich, an assistant professor of clinical neurology at the MS Comprehensive Care Center at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. They will give patient and physician perspectives, answer questions, discuss treatment and rehabilitation options and challenge other MS patients to follow through with their goals.

Booker wants to inspire other patients with her talk, she said.

“My biggest sole purpose is to challenge [other patients] and to tell them I know what it’s like to have a chronic illness and to wake up every day thinking about it,” she said. “But really the things that I do the best and the things that are the most fun and rewarding are when I’m not thinking about my MS.”

A single mother of three boys who was an interior designer before her diagnosis, Booker said she initially started climbing because she wanted to see how hard and how far she could push back at her MS.

She plans to tell patients at her talk next week that they can go on living their dreams, and that they need to be their own advocate and work with their doctor to make sure they are on a drug therapy plan that works for them.

“I’m not here to tell you to run marathons or climb the highest mountains in the world,” she said. “Your mountain is MS — what are you going to do with it?”

Her favorite climb so far has been Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, the highest mountain on the continent. During that trip, she arrived on a three-mile-long stretch of platform on a Russian C-130 plane with a mix of adventurers, scientists interested in studying global warming and even an oil sheik from Dubai. Though they were all from different backgrounds, everyone was awed by the stark landscape that was so far away from anywhere or anything, she said.

An estimated 400,000 Americans are living with MS, according to the National MS Society. An autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal chord, MS causes numbness, muscle weakness, slurred speech and temporary or permanent paralysis.

Burbank resident Glen Paget, an algebra professor at Los Angeles Valley College, has been living with MS for 17 years. Paget goes to the Burbank Physical Therapy and Wellness once a week to see owner Michelle Tamondong for therapy sessions, he said. Although he is unable to walk and is in a wheelchair, he still teaches and feels lucky to have a job that he loves.

“You have to keep a positive attitude,” said Paget, who has lived in Burbank for 25 years. “You have to do anything you can to preserve the strength you have left.”

Berkovich treats about 800 patients at the care center, and of those, about 100 are from Burbank and a few from Glendale.

The Studio City resident was inspired to specialize in MS after her aunt was diagnosed with the debilitating disease in the late 1960s, she said.

“I saw how it made a huge impact on my aunt’s life,” Berkovich said. “She was not able to work. She wasn’t even able to walk, and her entire life was ruined by MS.”

The treatment options available have dramatically changed the outcome of the disease, Berkovich said.

One of the options is the MRI, which can show the degeneration in the brain.

There are also new medications like Copaxone, which Booker takes. “It’s a completely different disease,” Berkovich said. “That’s why I usually say to my patients, ‘Don’t listen to what your grandma said about MS.’”

Every year, there’s something new in the understanding of the disease, said Dr. Ayman Salem, a board-certified neurosurgeon who practices at the Valley Neuroscience Institute in Burbank.

Booker’s story is admirable, Salem said, and gives hope to a lot of MS patients who can get tired or give up as the disease takes a toll on them.

“Having someone like that as a role model for MS is a great story,” he said.
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