Thursday 20 July 2017

Finding the magic again - MS advocate on how treatment helped her laugh for first time in four years

When Maggs O'Riordan discovered she had multiple sclerosis, she fell apart and felt suicidal. But, she tells Joy Orpen, after taking part in a neurological rehab course with some special people, her whole life and outlook changed

MS advocate Maggs O'Riordan Wall. Brian Gavin Press 22
MS advocate Maggs O'Riordan Wall. Brian Gavin Press 22

Maggs O'Riordan Wall (32) is one of the liveliest, most dynamic people you could ever meet.

She exudes positivity and good cheer, while relentlessly encouraging us all to make the very best of our lives, no matter what difficulties we face. Yet, just a few years ago, she wanted to end it all; in essence, she had given up on herself.

Having grown up in Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, Maggs decided to become a nurse. But her training only lasted one year, because she soon discovered she was too soft-hearted. "Some nights I'd come home in tears, having seen photos of the patients' families proudly displayed on their walls. But I knew those relatives wouldn't be coming to visit them."

After leaving nursing, Maggs found employment in the hospitality and retail industries. This suited her perfectly as she is gregarious and extroverted by nature. She was also making the most of her youth and partying big time, something, in hindsight, she does not regret.

When she was 22 years old, Maggs discovered she was also a natural when it came to swinging a golf club. So much so, she was soon made honorary secretary of the ladies' section of her local club. One of her main tasks was to organise club activities such as the obligatory captain's dinner and golf tournaments. Finally, Maggs had found her niche. "I love the buzz of planning event after event," she says.

Around this time, she met and married Diarmuid Wall. Soon after, she began experiencing odd physical symptoms. "One day I couldn't pick up my beautiful twin nephews," she recalls, "even though they were still small. I thought I must have a virus coming on." There were also times when she was just too tired to play golf on summer evenings. "I put it down to working so hard," she explains. "I was always making excuses for my health problems."

In 2012, Maggs was invited to play for the Irish Mixed Foursomes competition in Ballybunion. Half way through the tournament, she felt a sharp pain shoot from her head down her neck and spine. Typically, she played on and forgot about it. A couple of months later, she got another reminder of her vulnerability while driving home after a night out with friends. "I began to see double in one of my eyes," she says. "I got such a shock I stopped the car. Later, I drove home by keeping the affected eye closed. Looking back, I'm not proud I did that."

The next day, Maggs consulted her GP, who advised her to go to A&E, where a decision was made to admit her. But she was having none of that. "I had tickets for Electric Picnic and nothing was going to keep me away," says our enthusiastic party girl. So, having signed a waiver, they let her go the Picnic on condition she returned the following Monday, which she dutifully did.

"Following tests, they told me I had optic neuritis," says Maggs, "but they also starting mentioning MS." The following day a neurologist told her he was almost certain she did have MS. The next stage was to do a lumbar puncture. Finally, on Christmas Eve, it was officially confirmed that she did indeed have MS. Maggs says deep down she already knew that was the case. "It was shocking," she says. "But at least the question mark hanging over me was gone, and I was able to tell people that I did, definitely, have the condition."

According to MS Ireland, this is a disease of the central nervous system that causes messages from the brain to the body to become distorted or blocked.

Following her diagnosis, Maggs sank into a deep depression that lasted a long time. "I locked myself away and basically stopped talking because my memory would suddenly go. Or I'd struggle to get the words out. I had other symptoms too, including dizziness, headaches, anxiety, speech problems, nerve pain and so on.

"It was also a struggle to find a medication that worked for me. Since my diagnosis, I've had several relapses. For example, last year I spent time in a wheelchair. MS can feel so isolating. It seems like no one is there for you. The depression got so bad I started to have suicidal thoughts; it felt like my life was over."

In the midst of all this, Maggs went to a physiotherapist for a sore shoulder and that's where she heard about a programme offering neurological rehabilitation at St Camillus' Hospital in Limerick. Following an interview, Maggs was accepted for an eight-week programme (but ended up doing 14 weeks). Specialists in speech and language, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and clinical psychology were on hand to coach and advise the participants who were all grappling with the effects of various neurological conditions.

"When I spoke to the therapists, I noticed that they sometimes completed my sentences," Maggs recalls. "And that told me that they really understood my problems. For the first time since the diagnosis, I didn't feel alone.

"Another thing: I hadn't laughed for nearly four years, and now suddenly, here we were, the members of the group, all laughing at ourselves. It was pure magic. I began to realise that I was getting my personality back and that big ideas were starting to drift back into my head again; another bit of magic."

At this point, Maggs made a vow to do everything in her power to spread awareness about the enormous value of neuro rehab. So, she did an advocacy course through the Disability Federation of Ireland. Having gained her diploma, she is now an official MS advocate, working tirelessly to honour that title.

Her first step was to read up on everything she could about MS. Then she began sharing what she had discovered, as well as her own personal experiences and feelings, on Snapchat.

"It's about music, laughing and keeping positive," says Maggs. "I'll even dance if it makes people happy. But they will see me on my bad days too, when I push myself through the difficult patches."

Maggs says she has had a phenomenal response from hundreds of people interested in MS, so she knows she is heading in the right direction.

In the meantime, she is going to fight ferociously to get increased funding for programmes such as the neuro rehab course she undertook.

"Right now, there is not enough money to provide places for all those who need them. And that's just terribly sad."

World MS Day takes place on May 31.

To contact MS Ireland see ms-society.ie

The snapcode for Maggs O'Riordan is maggsorw

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