Something weird was happening with my vision.
No big deal.
Periodically, I felt a brief jolting pain shooting from my left eye.
Lately, after my jogs in the park, my vision would get unusually dark.
One day I haphazardly covered my right eye with my hand and discovered: I could not see out of my left eye.
A few days passed and the problems persisted. Deep inside I knew something wasn’t quite right. But, I was in nursing school and at that point in my life nothing was more important. I was extremely swamped with course work and all of my time was spent studying and going to class.
Everything came to a head when one day I walked face first into a cinderblock wall in my dorm room. I just didn’t see it. The most embarrassing part of the wall fiasco was my boyfriend, Tommy, was visiting me and saw the entire scene. We kind of laughed it off and even though he already knew I was clumsy it was still somewhat humiliating.
After my mishap, I attributed my unusual vision problems to that unintentional march into the wall. But to tell the truth I had been having vision problems for a while, just not that severe. I was using denial to hide it from everyone including myself. This will not be the last time I use denial.
The pain from hitting the wall was so relentless that it was difficult for me to focus on my daily routines. Eventually I conceded defeat to the throbbing discomfort and the in and out fading of my eyesight to sequentially usher myself to the eye doctor. That trip to the eye doctor would mark a turning point in my 25-year existence.
I had an appointment for the next day. I guess that is one of the perks when you live on campus at a medical school. The night before the appointment, while getting ready for bed, I learned how difficult it is to function with severely impaired vision. I got so frustrated with getting undressed that I slept in my shirt and underwear because I couldn’t find my nightclothes.
By morning I was relieved that my vision was better and the pain had subsided. My sight was still blurry but at least it wasn’t going in and out. I almost canceled the appointment but decided to keep it. I think I did because a part of me was still scared.
I felt like that guy in the book “Dead Man Walking” during my journey to the doctor’s office. Once I got there I nervously sat in the waiting room for my name to be called. I tried to read one of the magazines but I gave up because I could barely see the words. After about twenty minutes they called me to the back. Once in the room the nurse asked me what my problem was. I told her I was having some trouble focusing my eyes. Then I confidently announced I most likely had a retinal detachment. I had just studied this in class so I just knew that analysis was correct. The nurse said she would tell the doctor my diagnoses. But me being me, I insisted she write it down on my chart to ensure he saw it.
Minutes later, the doctor entered the room and this time I announced my supposition so he could hear it. He just smiled, then started his exam and concluded that I did not have a retinal detachment. I couldn’t believe my diagnosis was wrong but still it was great news. At the closing of the very quick exam, he pronounced I had tired eyes. Whatever that meant.
He said I needed more rest and prescribed me some eye drops. Relieved, I left the exam room with the intentions of going back to my dorm. I was almost out of the office front door when I remembered covering my eye a few days earlier. Then I started to think.
What is he talking about? SOMETHING IS DEFINITELY WRONG!
My panic meter began rising. I did an about face and headed back to the exam room. I didn’t even stop at the front check-in desk. My walk became a strut that progressed to a jog. By the time I reached the exam room my panic meter had exploded. I was panting. I burst into the room and found the optometrist assessing his next patient. I desperately squawked, “BUT I CAN’T SEE OUT OF MY LEFT EYE!”
Why didn’t I say that from the beginning, I don’t know but it definitely got his attention.
He looked toward me and seemed to be thinking. Within seconds I could tell a light bulb went off for him. A nurse appeared behind me and the doctor asked her to escort me to another examination room. I waited for what seemed like an hour when in reality it was about 15 minutes. All the disorders and ailments I learned about in nursing school came flooding back to me. I sat there and thought I could have everything from hysterical blindness to cancer. When the doctor entered the room I was fighting back tears and pleaded to him to fix my eye. He examined me again, and then began asking me about my family history. I could barely answer his questions. After about two minutes of his inquiries I again begged him to fix me. He ignored my plea but looked me in my eyes and sternly said, “I need you to calm down and listen to me!” I took a deep breath and softly said, “OK”. While still staring at me he firmly said, “Nicole, I want you to go get a MRI…today!”
Thanks to nursing school I was familiar with that test but I didn’t know why he wanted me to go get one and I was too upset to ask. The optometrist office made the appointment for me and I headed straight to the radiology center to get the MRI scan done. I did the scan at 3 p.m.
At 8:30 p.m. the phone rang. “I want you to see a neurologist tomorrow morning” my optometrist said. “We have made an appointment for you”.
After hanging up the phone I was so nervous because the doctor called me at home…himself!
I knew that only happens when something was seriously wrong.
That night I called my parents in Baton Rouge, LA. I said to them, “I’ve been having trouble seeing. First, I went to the eye doctor. He sent me for an MRI. Now, I have an appointment with a neurologist in the morning.”
I was so distraught that I could barely speak but managed to mumble, “I think it’s something serious.” Again there was only silence on the phone. When they finally spoke my mother said, “What time should we be there?”
The next day my parents and sister drove an hour to meet me in the examination room of LSU’s chief of neurology. With a tone of desperation in my voice I presented my story once again. “I hit the wall face first and now I’m having vision changes. That’s all. Just give me some eye drops! Please.”
He said. “No, it’s the other way around, Nicole. You hit the wall because you have been having trouble seeing.” I didn’t let up. I continued to give him a thorough interrogation offering him alternative diagnoses and questioned his ability to interpret my MRI scan. He calmly stood, stepped into my personal space, stared me in the eyes and declared,
“Nicole, I am 99.9 percent sure you have Multiple Sclerosis.”
From that point, the lights went out for me mentally and emotionally. I couldn’t process much more after his official diagnosis. We spoke for another 30 minutes or so but I really don’t remember much about it. I am so happy I had my family there to speak for me because I have no clue what I or anyone else said. It was like my mind shut off. My brain was given too much to process. While the doctor was giving me the facts about living with MS, I was foreseeing my future. I saw visions of me “rolling” in a wheelchair to the Bursars’ Office and withdrawing from nursing school. I kept hearing the tormenting echoes of the doctor’s earlier words, “chronic progressive debilitating disease.”
We left the doctors office not really knowing what to expect but in my mind I was anticipating the worst. Since I didn’t know much about multiple sclerosis all I could think about was wheelchairs and Richard Pryor. I know it sounds silly but at that moment that’s where my mind was.
Once I got pass the initial shock, I underwent the required dose of outpatient intravenous steroids. My eyesight slowly returned to baseline. I went back to class and began running at the park again. To my relief and surprise my initial thoughts did not become my reality at all.
Well, at least not at that time.
The only true difference between that day and the day I got diagnosed was the shots I had to give myself, and the fact that I now know I have multiple sclerosis. I somehow found solace in that. I chuckle now as I remember years ago telling people, “Yes, I have it (MS) but it’s never stopped me from doing what I want to do.”
I completed nursing school and moved in with my boyfriend Tommy. We got an apartment in Metairie, Louisiana and I began my nursing career running through the floors of a New Orleans intensive care unit while Tommy worked at The House of Blues New Orleans. I had 2 relatively “uneventful” years living with MS until I decided to become a travel nurse. Tommy got a transfer through his job and we hit the road. The plan was to travel the United States living in a city for a year or two then moving to another city. First stop, “Sin City” Las Vegas, Nevada.