Hometown Heroes: Rita Erwin is overcoming MS

Published 9:50 am Wednesday, March 13, 2002

By By Robbie Byrd, News Editor
Editor's Note: This story is part one of a three part series on Multiple Sclerosis and its effects on those who suffer from it.
Rita Erwin suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, a debilitating and chronic disease that affects 350,000 in the U.S.
And, she admits, it has slowed her down somewhat. But she hasn't let it slower down her spirit.
She used to enjoy cooking, playing the piano at her church: a perfectionist in all that she did. Except, she admits, cleaning house.
"I never much was a percetionist when it came to keeping house," she admits.
But nonehtless, even after 15 years of being diagnosed, she continues on each day with her word processor and piano as her sense of release and enjoyment.
When Rita was 33, she said she began to experience double vision and memory loss, one of the first signs of MS.
"One day while I was playing the piano at church, the notes just started jumping around on the page," Rita recalls. "And then I couldn't remember how the song sounded. So I hit the keys and when I did it sounded like a little kid had just banged the piano. I tried to start over, and got through the first note, and it was OK then. But I was so embarressed. I can sit here and play the piano at home, but I didn't need to be in front of a congregation because you never know when it will go."
"I finally went to a neurologist and after talking about it, he suspected M.S., but he wasn't sure. He said he would have to check it out.
"There's no test for M.S…. just like there's no cause for M.S. And sure enough, that's what I had."
Rita said she went from doctor to doctor, trying to get a diagnosis for her problem."
"You go from specialist to specialist, and people get to saying 'its all in your head,'" she said.
But after almost a year of testing and doctor visits, it was confirmed: she had M.S.
These symptoms, often called misfires, happen when the signal traveling from the brain does not make it to muscles in the body or when signal do make, but end up at the wrong muscle.
"The message just tries to get to the brain and it keeps trying to get over, but you get those delayed reactions and confusion," Rita said.
Rita said that M.S. has changed her life, but not necesarily for the worse.
"I think a lot of times that I'm not so bad off after all. I do what I can, and I've had to quit a few things that I love, but I've just had to rearrange my life."
"Everything about your life changes: What you used to be, you are no longer," Rita said. "I could tell you, I never get depressed, but that wouldn't be the truth. I have my moments, but I will not allow myself to stay there. It's my choice. I think about somebody else. My mother used to say, when we were growing up, there's always someone in worse shape than you."
She let out a small laugh and added: "Even though she's longer with me, everything she ever taught me is still here, right in my heart."
Even though Rita can't play the piano in church or, even though she never cared much for it, clean her house, she says she still has plenty of things to do to occupy her time.
I have my typewriter, and as long as I can type, I'm going to do that," she said. "I really would like to write a book, but I'd have to think about."
Rita, who is full of stories, said she has compiled over 16 pages of family recipes that she has accumulated over the years that would otherwise have been lost.
Rita said that her family has been a huge source of inspiration and strength for her.
"My family is so good to me," she said. "I have a brother who is an RN and a sister who is a federal employee who lives in Georgia and they look after me."
Her husband is also a large part of her life.
"I don't know what I would do without him," she said.

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