By Maddie Yerant
When Carmel resident Sydney Smith’s leg went numb her sophomore year of high school, like many Hoosiers, she tried to blame her back luck on the weather.
“I ignored the symptoms for about a month,” Smith said. “It was right after that big ice storm, so I was just like, ‘I slipped. I slipped and fell. Something happened; that’s why my leg is going numb.’”
But urging from her parents and persistent symptoms persuaded Smith to visit Indiana Neuroscience that fateful March 20, 2012 – her father’s birthday – where she was told Indiana weather had nothing to do with what she was feeling.
“(My doctor) came in on her lunch break and said, ‘Sydney, you have multiple sclerosis,’” Smith said. “‘This is our game plan.’”
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease targeting the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information from the brain to the rest of the body, sometimes leaving the patient disabled.
While her parents cried and fretted over the diagnosis, relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, Smith’s first concern was her education.
“My first question was, ‘When can I go back to school?’” Smith said.
Education has always been a priority for Smith, a Ball State senior studying education and one of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s 2015 Heritage Classic Scholarship recipients.
According to Smith, the scholarship not only helps with the financial burden of juggling school with hospital bills, but also means something on a personal level.
“I thought my first grade teacher walked on water,” Smith said. “I still think she does. She completely inspired me to be a teacher. I’ve always said I wanted to be like her, and right before I graduated high school, I applied to a scholarship for teachers, and it asked, ‘Who is your inspiration?’ I wrote about her.”
Though Smith sent the essay to its inspiration, she never expected to hear back from the teacher who sparked her passion.
But she did – and that’s where the story turns almost ironic, almost fateful.
Not long after she sent the letter, Smith’s mother was approached at Wal-Mart by the teacher herself.
“She had tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘Thank you so much,’” Smith said. “And she was diagnosed with MS in 2012, and she said she was going to have to stop teaching because of how her condition was. She said one day she was feeling really down, and she got my letter, and she said she cried and cried at her desk and that she finally felt like she made a difference in a student’s life.”
Knowing there are others out there in her situation has helped put her diagnosis in perspective even in the scarier moments, Smith said.
“My life isn’t over,” Smith said. “That was something that I thought – that my life was completely over.”
Though Smith has found peace with her illness, she says there are still times where the negativity rears its ugly head.
“Fear,” Smith said when asked about the biggest challenge in dealing with MS. “There’s always been that fear. I could wake up tomorrow and I’d be relapsing, and I wouldn’t know. I’d start feeling those symptoms tomorrow. So there’s always that fear of, ‘How am I going to feel in the morning?’”
She credits her family and friends as well as her boyfriend, Chris Baumann, with pushing her to see the positive, with not letting circumstance get the best of her.
“I’ve got a great support group, and I’m so lucky,” Smith said. “(Chris) pushes me, and it’s amazing.”
Baumann, whose mother was diagnosed with cancer, is no stranger to lifelong illness.
“I was kind of exposed to the process,” he said. “So every month now, we’re going to have to do something and worry about it, but you know that in the end they always bounce back.”
Smith said she wishes everyone had Baumann’s mentality, but she’s working to help change the attitude of those who treat her illness like it’s made her a different person.
“I’m happy to answer questions,” Smith said. “I’m happy to talk about it. I’m happy to – not enlighten people, but to help change their view a little (and show) that I am doing well, that I am still the same person I was.”
Smith says she’s done her best to stay that way. The president of her sorority at Ball State, she volunteers for organizations such as Bike MS and Walk MS and will be graduating on time in the spring.
She even runs a blog called “I’m not drunk, I have MS” in her spare time, where she details and even vents about the ins and outs of her prognosis, using her sense of humor to keep it all in check.
Overall, Smith said she hopes her positive outlook will help inspire those in her situation to realize their diagnosis is not the end of the road, no matter how discouraging.
“There’s so many people who talk about how terrible it is, and how they’re never going to be the same, and I think of it as a good thing,” Smith said. “I can improve my quality of life and I can improve other people’s quality of life by saying, ‘Look how I’m doing. You can do this, too.’”