Woman tackles MS head-on

Heuga Center helps Hayden resident

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While some people drive around and around the grocery store parking lot looking for that one parking space that will prevent them from walking three steps to the front door, Leisha Epp parks in the spot farthest away.

"I might as well park out there, because I can walk that far," said the 22-year-old, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago.

Epp, daughter of Hayden residents Charlie and Christine Epp, doesn't take anything for granted anymore. She said having the disease has changed her outlook on life for the better.

"I look at life as a road," she said. "And a lot of people's roads are paved. They are smooth, without any bumps or obstacles in the way. But I have a dirt road with bumps and obstacles. It just makes me more thankful when I get to where I'm going."

It reflects in her family, as well.

"As a family, we have put life into perspective more," Christine Epp said. "We put more value on life, and we value our time with each other."

Christine Epp also said Leisha and her younger sister, Jennifer, don't waste time having silly arguments anymore. "They enjoy each other more," she said.

Leisha, a graduate of Hayden High School, is a student at Fort Lewis College in Durango, but she had her first MS symptoms two years ago when she was living with her parents in Hayden.

She woke up one morning, feeling numb from the neck down, and she had trouble with her coordination when she walked.

At the time, she was doing manual labor for Routt County, so she, her co-workers and her family believed she had pinched a nerve.

Just take some rest, and you'll be OK, they all told her. But when she still felt the symptoms after a vacation with her family, the Epps decided Leisha should see a doctor.

A doctor in Craig told her it was multiple sclerosis.

MS is a chronic, unpredictable, incurable neurological disease, which damages the fatty tissue surrounding and protecting the nerve fibers of the central nervous system, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. When the fatty tissue or a nerve fiber itself is destroyed or damaged, the ability of the nerves to conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain is disrupted, producing the various symptoms of MS.

Symptoms can include slight numbness in the limbs or more severe paralysis or loss of vision.

Epp's symptoms include occasional numbness in her limbs and body, and like many others with MS, her vision is blurred if she gets too hot or stressed.

"It was a total blow when we found out," Christine Epp said. "It was like a bomb. It hit us hard."

The Epps decided they needed a second opinion, so they visited an MS specialist in Denver. An MRI showed lesions in Leisha's brain, confirming the first doctor's diagnosis.

"I consider myself lucky for finding out so soon," Leisha said.

Barbara Sanders, 53, of Steamboat Springs didn't find out so soon. Though she remembers symptoms as a 13-year-old, she didn't know it was MS until she was 32.

Her first symptoms became apparent in boarding school when she sometimes could not write and hold anything in her right hand. Not understanding what was wrong was frustrating, Sanders said.

For several years during the 1980s, Sanders lived in Hawaii, where on two occasions the heat prevented her from driving because her vision was blurred and her legs felt numb.

"It felt like my legs wrapped in bags of unpopped popcorn," she said.

In 1982, Sanders had her first MRI, which proved she had MS.

She and her family burst into tears. She thought she was bound for a wheelchair, but she is still walking strong in Steamboat today and can talk about her MS with a light heart.

"Buying shoes is fun ... I can't feel my feet," Sanders joked. "Seriously, I'm very lucky because my MS is very benign. It's still scary. There's no doubt about it.

For Leisha, diagnosing the disease sooner meant finding treatments sooner. Sanders and Christina Epp found out about the Heuga Center, a center for people with MS. Christina Epp found out through the Jimmie Heuga Snow Express for MS, a series of recreational ski races held in 14 resorts across the country, including Steamboat, that is the primary fund-raiser for the Heuga Center.

Jimmie Heuga won bronze medal for alpine slalom skiing in the 1964 Winter Olympics, and was diagnosed with MS six years later. Doctors told Heuga the best thing for his health would be to remain sedentary, said Susie Kincade of the Heuga Center in Vail.

Heuga remained sedentary for five years, Kincade said, and finally said he didn't want to live like that anymore. He started exercising, and doctors realized his health was better because of it.

"He single-handedly revolutionized how MS is handled," Kincade said. "Exercise became accepted as a standard for how you manage MS."

Now, the Heuga Center works with hundreds of people with MS each year. A five-day program called CAN DO encompasses all elements of life, including education, nutrition, mental well-being and exercise.

While, doctors give about an hour of their time talking with a person with MS, the Heuga Center's CAN DO program offers 45 hours in its five days in the form workshops, seminars and one-on-one talks with neurologists, psychologists, physical therapists and other health care specialists, Kincade said.

"It is very individualized and very transforming," Kincade said. "MS is the context for how to live their whole lives, and we show them how they can live their lives best they can.

"We shift people from focusing on what they can't do to what they can do."

Kincade said the Heuga Center's CAN DO program shows participants what to expect from MS, how to deal with it, how to realize goals.

"Some of the solutions seem obvious or small, but they can make a huge difference," Kincade said. "Some come in frustrated or depressed, but they leave empowered."

The program also addresses family, and how they learn how to be better supporters, Kincade said.

Sanders and Leisha Epp have both attended the Heuga Center's CAN DO program and said it has been the best thing for them as far as their health.

"It's an awesome place," said Leisha, who finished the program in May. "It was a wonderful experience."

Before coming to the Heuga Center, Leisha Epp said she had "ups and downs" in coping with her diagnosis. Self-administering injections was difficult, so her mother told her it was a good idea to do the CAN DO program to meet and interact with other people who have similar conditions.

Leisha said going to the Heuga Center gave her much more confidence, and "life for me is great," she said.

She still self-administers injections three times a week and visits the doctor for a steroid IV once a month.

"It's not that big of a deal," she said. "It's a good thing I grew up on ranch. I figure if I can give a cow a shot, I can do it to myself."

Leisha is pursuing an elementary education and agriculture degree in Durango, and she wants to teach kindergarten through third grade.

One in 750 Americans has MS and it is the most prevalent neurological disease among young adults, Kincade said. Most of the people diagnosed are between the ages of 20 and 40, and about two-thirds are women. The disease is more prevalently found in people who grow up in colder climates, but no studies have proven why.

Sanders said it is important to keep up with the latest information about the disease. To help her and others better understand MS and keep up with the latest, she meets with an MS group in Steamboat once a month at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

For more information about the group, call Carol Gordon at 870-3232.

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