Eric Kay was 38 years old; he and his wife Bonnie were living in the country, outside of Barrie. Their children were little, in early elementary school. Their careers centred on social services. Life was very good. Every now and then, Eric would have a little attack; it felt like a panic attack. Sometimes it felt like a heart attack.
Time went on, medical appointments inched forward, and finally a series of MRIs gave a definitive answer. Multiple Sclerosis.
“MS is difficult to diagnosis,” says Eric, explaining there is galloping MS and progressive MS, among other types. For the past 19 years, Eric has lived with his body and the attacks that leave him crawling on his hands and knees to get his walker and watch while his drivers licence is one again taken away. Yet, in the past year, with the use of his cane or his walker, Eric has walked over 800 kms. Using mailboxes as his guide, he determinedly makes his way up his county sideroad. He takes his neighbours recycling and garbage containers back up their driveways; he waves to people as they drive past. He gets out his little notebook and records how far he was able to walk this day, then that day.
When he contacted me recently, his message was simple: “I am a clinical social worker dedicated to people in a variety of social services jobs since 1985. Since I was diagnosed with MS in 1996, I have obtained two university degrees (BSW and MSW), I’ve lost my drivers licence several times. I’ve learned to walk again, with a cane and a walker. I’ve worked for Children’s Aid Society, for Central North Correction Centre, and now have my own private practice.”
As I sat with Eric over tea this week, his message was loud and clear, and kind and without malice. “MS doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”
Eric says his life is richer, and fuller since MS wrapped itself around him. Despite the fact it’s forced him to give up hockey and racquetball and baseball (sports he loves) it’s opened him up to other activities, like walking, and it’s taught him to develop gratitude along the way. He’s had to learn to deal with tremendous fatigue, with attacks that immobilize him, with fainting spells that take away his drivers licence, with the loss of coordination.
He speaks with great care. He thinks before he speaks and he thinks during speech. In early diagnosis of MS he moved from working with youth at Children’s Aid Society, to Central NOrth Correctional Center in Penetang where he developed programs for the 1200 inmates incarcerated there. As his health deteriorated, he moved to the Catholic Family Life Centre in a counselling position, and then as his health improved he moved back to the prison. He’s also worked for Canadian Mental Health Association.
“The kind of MS I have is sort of rotational; I’m up and down all the time,” says Eric. He joined a support group and found he was the only ambulatory participant. He joined a yoga group and felt like the weak link in the chain. He decided to start a counselling service where he could work with people one on one and manage his MS symptoms as they come up. He works out of Dr Wozniak’s office at 5 Quarry Ridge in Barrie.
His regular blog lets him try to encourage people with illness and challenge and he aims to give his clients tools to react in a more lifegiving way to the problems life brings. Eric tries to write a couple of blogs a week, personal stories, personal thoughts. He says it’s helped him to look forward. (www.kaycounselling.com; email@example.com)
“None of us can control what comes at us out of left field,” says Eric. “But we do have a choice, and that’s how we choose to handle it.”
“When I’m at the hospital and I see little kids getting their cancer treatments, it gives me a whole different perspective. I try to impart that to my clients. Be grateful. Focus on what you have in your life that’s good.”
Eric’s highly aware of what he’s grateful for: his wife, Bonnie; his kids (son Ian just graduated from engineering; daughter Heather is a dancer and zoomba instructor); his community of neighbours and friends; our incredible country; the fact that we have four seasons; his work; his neighbour who drives him into his office in Barrie.
The list is long and Eric adds to it regularly.
“Every morning we choose what kind of day we’re going to have. I have the power to choose. I really do. And that makes all the difference.”
Eric challenges people, no matter their situation: Do you exercise? Do you walk? Do you smile at people? Do you talk to them? Do you think about what’s good in your life? All those things are choices.
He misses the cameraderie of the sports lockerroom but he’s replaced it with new friendships. He’s seeing a friend up his road who was injured in a motorcycle accident; they have a lot in common. He says it’s easy to focus on what you’ve lost, what you no longer have, but it’s not productive. It’s all about what you have!
“MS is not a death sentence. We all get dealt a certaoin deck of cards. If we can just embrace them and play our hand to the best of our ability…”