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Upcoming MS walk holds special meaning for Belmont resident

Belmont resident Colleen Akerman and her husband Mike posed for a photo before setting out on a fundraising walk for Multiple Sclerosis last year. Akerman, who was diagnosed with MS in 2010, will once again be among the many people who will walk to raise money for MS research on May 12 at Opechee Park in Laconia. (Courtesy Photo) (click for larger version)
April 25, 2012
BELMONT — An upcoming walk for Multiple Sclerosis on May 12 will see many people come out in support of finding a cure for the disease that strikes thousands of people each year.

The walk holds a special meaning, however, for Belmont resident Colleen Akerman, who knows first hand how much MS affects lives.

Akerman was diagnosed with MS in January of 2010, the same year the local fundraising walk in Laconia began. It doesn't mean that was when she first came down with the illness, though, and that, she said, is part of the problem.

"The biggest difficulty is coming up with the diagnosis, since MS mimics so many other illnesses," Akerman said.

As is typical to many, she first learned she had the disease through a visit to the eye doctor. Lying down looking at a paddle fan on the ceiling of her room one day, she realized she could only see the outside of the paddles, and she thought she was going blind.

"It turned out I had optic neuritis, which is a common way to diagnose MS. Some people wait 15 years or more before they get a diagnosis, though," she said.

There is no one test that detects the disease, but through a series of tests, it becomes apparent that symptoms people typically chalk up to Lyme Disease, Vitamin B deficiencies and much more were really the first signs of MS. Akerman said she recalls nearly passing out after a hot shower, and experiencing tingling sensations in her body that she passed off as other simpler conditions, such as a pinched nerve. In reality, those with MS cannot tolerate heat, and therefore, the shower incidents were actually small flares of MS making themselves known, along with the occasional numbness she would have.

Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 25 to 40, but there are those in their 50's and 60's who never realized what their symptoms indicated for many years. While Akerman said she is often told how good she looks, she said it is a misnomer that those with MS will appear ill.

"You don't always look sick because a lot of the symptoms are internal," she said. "If they only knew how I felt on the inside, though."

For the most part, she continues to work and volunteer in the schools and community where she and her husband Mike are raising their two sons, but she said she does have flares on occasion that will keep her bedridden for a time. Her particular form of MS is a relapse and remission form where, for now at least, symptoms she experiences in a flare are not always permanent.

"Last year, I woke up one day and couldn't write my name. I had to walk with a cane for a while, too, but fortunately, I got that all back," Akerman said.

Each flare, though, can cause damage that can accumulate in time.

Akerman is not one to let something like MS take charge of her life, however, and she has spent the past two summers taking a little control back through research studies. She is also foregoing the typical injectible drugs, which her insurance would pay for, and is part of a plan through a drug manufacturer to take an oral medication instead. She makes the trip to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for MRI's, dermatologic treatments and other tests for her heart and brain.

"I do whatever I can that I or someone else might benefit from. I feel obligated to help," Akerman said.

One of the other ways she helps will be to once again take part in Walk MS 2012, which is sponsored by the Greater New England Chapter of the National MS Society.

Heidi Roy, who works in the Manchester office, said while 19,000 people in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts are diagnosed with MS, the disease actually touches many more lives.

"For every person with MS, there is a mother, father, siblings, a spouse, children, employers and so many more who are also affected," Roy said.

Last year alone, 150 walkers in the Lakes Region raised $25,000 for research. So far for 2012, Roy reported 105 walkers have pre-registered for the event.

"It's a $25 minimum pledge for anyone over 12 to join and many get people to help sponsor them to raise even more money," she said.

Akerman and Linda Roy of Laconia Savings Bank have been hard at work to make this year's walk a big success. There will be a breakfast held before the start of the day, as well as snacks, water and pizza for lunch. T-Bones Restaurant and Subway will also give out coupons for walkers to enjoy discounts at their businesses.

The route will begin at Opechee Park in Laconia and follow the WOW trail over either a three-mile or four and a half mile route, which is left to each walker's discretion. Registration will begin at 9 a.m. on May 12 and start time for the walk is scheduled for 10 a.m..

"This will be my third year, and I look forward to seeing a lot of people come out to join us in the fight against MS," Akerman said.

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