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Rebuilding: A Life with MS
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Rebuilding: A Life with MS

ANDREW WOLFE, age 43, has been a carpenter for 20 years. He's worked on roofs, foundations and everything in between. "With my construction skills, I could build anything," he says.

Given his profession, Wolfe is no stranger to aches and pains. For years, he had a persistent pain in his lower right abdomen. He assumed it was caused by the heavy lifting he did every day at work. Sometimes he worried that it might be an ulcer. Then in 2011, he felt a brand new pain that he couldn't ignore.

"Right before Christmas, I woke up and my left eye had a stabbing pain whenever I looked anywhere but straight ahead," he recalls.

He went to his primary care doctor, who sent him to an ophthalmologist. At first, Wolfe's ophthalmologist thought he might have an optic nerve tumor, but suspected the combination of eye pain and recurring abdominal pain might point to another condition. He scheduled Wolfe for for an MRI.

"The doctor called me and said, 'Well, good news: You don't have a tumor. But when they read the MRI of your head, it looks like you might have MS.'"

MS, or multiple sclerosis, is a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. It interferes with the signals the central nervous system sends along the nerve fibers to the rest of the body. Eye problems, poor coordination, weakness, fatigue, numbness, odd sensations and unexplained pain can all be symptoms.

"MS is an autoimmune disease, which means the person's immune system goes into overdrive. Instead of just attacking invading bacteria and viruses, it attacks the person's own body. In the case of MS, it attacks the brain and spinal cord," explains Annette Wundes, M.D., co-director of the UW Medicine Multiple Sclerosis Center at Northwest Hospital & Medical Center.

Established as one of the country's first dedicated MS centers in 1977, it relocated from UW Medical Center to a new comprehensive, state-of-the-art facility on the Northwest Hospital campus in July 2012. The center has been engaged in numerous research projects over the years, including management of depression, exercise, function, pain and disease progression in patients, as well as employment options for MS patients.

Wolfe was diagnosed with MS in February 2012. "In July, I heard about the official opening of the MS Center. So I went there and talked to Dr. Wundes. Immediately I said, 'OK, I want to be seen here,'" he says.

"With a multi-disciplinary team of neurologists, rehabilitation medicine physicians, psychologists and MS-trained nurses, we can address every MS patient's individual needs," says Dr. Wundes.

In addition to physicians and nurses who specialize in treating MS, the UW Medicine Multiple Sclerosis Center gives patients access to advanced imaging technology to help in diagnosis and monitoring the disease; intravenous infusion of the latest MS medications; physical, occupational and speech therapy; and providers with expertise in helping patients cope with issues such as pain, and who offer screening and treatment for cognitive or emotional problems. The center even offers vocational counseling and driver re-training.

Before coming to the UW Medicine Multiple Sclerosis Center, Wolfe had been prescribed a drug that he administered via self-injection every Friday. "An hour and a half, two hours after the injection, it was like I had the ultimate, worst flu," he says.

"One of the first things Dr. Wundes asked me during my first appointment was about my current treatment. I said, 'I'm miserable once a week. Friday is not fun anymore.' Dr. Wundes said, 'This is not OK, there are other options,'" Wolfe recalls.

"I consider the activity of each patient's disease and any persistent side effects," says Dr. Wundes. "I strive to find treatments that make the least possible impact on someone's well-being and that give us optimal control of the disease. I aim for the least disease progression and the greatest control of symptoms."

Dr. Wundes discussed alternate treatment options with Wolfe and ultimately switched him to a different drug that is administered once a month in the center's infusion unit. To date, Wolfe has experienced no unpleasant side-effects and no new damage to his brain or spinal cord. Though he's noticed some MS-related changes in his memory and often feels tired, his symptoms are becoming well controlled.

Today, Wolfe still does carpentry work part-time and is taking advantage of just about every service the UW Medicine Multiple Sclerosis Center has to offer. "From neurology to rehabilitation to physical therapy to job therapy — everything.I've run the gamut," he says.He maintains a positive attitude and is hopeful about the future.

"People have this negative view of the disease as incurable. But MS is something that, when well controlled, doesn't have to interfere with your work or personal life," says Dr. Wundes.

For more information about the UW Medicine Multiple Sclerosis Center at Northwest Hospital, call 206.598.3344. 

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