MS Around the Globe: Meet Wendy Booker, Mountain Climber and Inspiration
The Multiple Sclerosis International Federation has designated Wednesday, May 26, 2010, as the 2nd annual World MS Day. Over 2.5 million people in the world have MS and the aims of World MS Day are to raise awareness and to strengthen the network of people living with MS across the world, truly a global movement.
In honor of World MS Day, the first person with MS to successfully reach the highest peak on six of the seven continents in the world (referred to as The Seven Summits), Wendy Booker has agreed to stop by for a visit. We communicated by email and then had a great phone conversation on Monday.
Previously an interior designer and teacher, Wendy is now a marathon runner, mountain climber, motivational speaker, non-profit founder, and a person who lives with multiple sclerosis. Her goals are to raise awareness of MS, to inspire others by telling her story, and to continually challenge herself. Wendy's most recent challenge was to climb Mount Everest where she made it to 17,000 feet.
“Everybody has a challenge.”
Please join me in welcoming Wendy to MS Central. She is very gracious to share her story, inspiration, and insights with us today.
Wendy, let me start by asking you some of the common questions MS patients tend to ask each other when first meeting, a social handshake of sorts. What are your symptoms? What type of MS do you have? When were you diagnosed?
I was diagnosed with relapsing/remitting MS in 1998. I still have the symptoms I presented with back in 1998. I have tingling and numbness in my left foot and leg up to the bottom of my rib cage.
With RRMS, there are ups and downs. After any relapses you've had, do you find yourself returning to baseline or have you noticed progression with your MS over the years?
Yes there are always ups and downs with MS. I have had them along the way but always seem to return to baseline.
Wednesday is World MS Day and you had planned to be at the top of Mt. Everest before making the decision to come down off the mountain. What made you want to run marathons and climb the tallest mountains around the globe in the first place?
I ran the Boston Marathon after I was diagnosed. I wasn’t a runner. I wasn’t an athlete but I was angry and scared when I learned I had MS. I decided to run a marathon just to see how hard and how far I could push back at my diagnosis. At that time in my life I figured if I ended up in a wheelchair what difference would it make if it happened on the marathon route or from MS, the outcome would be the same. How much more we know now! Thanks to the therapies we now have available to us living with MS, a wheelchair isn’t always the face of MS.
The mountains came to me a few years later. What started as an opportunity turned into my lifelong mission. Whereas I ran that very first marathon just to see if I could do it with MS, I now dedicate all that I am able to do with and for MS to those with MS who can’t. The mountains mean far more to me than a mountain.
I use the mountains as a metaphor for what life with MS is really like. Climbing is a struggle to be sure. Climbing is the hardest challenge I have taken on in my life but climbing is just like what life is like with MS. Frightening, a challenge, the unknowns and so I use my mountains to tell those living with MS that we all have a mountain; its called “MS” - it is what we choose to do with that mountain that will define us. Guess I’m just crazy enough to actually have to go out there and climb them.
In reading your blog, I am struck by the fact that you are not afraid of initial disappointments. You've made two attempts to scale Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, in 2009 and 2010. What gives you the drive and determination to try again after initial "failure?"
When I speak to others living with MS I always tell them, in fact I promise them, that if they can find something they are passionate about during the time their mind is engaged they get back what they were before they had the MS. When you are busy doing something you love you forget for the time you are busy that you have MS. For me to educate and share this with others is the greatest gift I can give and it comes from my heart and my own experience.
For someone living with MS maybe their mountain is going from their kitchen to their mailbox and using their walker instead of their wheelchair. Maybe they only get as far as the back door. You know what? It doesn’t matter because not only did they do it, they did it with MS! They are already winners just by the fact that they tried, they pushed themselves and challenged their MS.
When I try and climb a mountain and have to turn back or don’t summit at first I am very upset. I question myself, my strength, my abilities. But then I say “wait a minute” not only did I do it, I did it with MS! And if I don’t make the top I really did just by the virtue of going out there and attempting it with the unknowns of an MS diagnosis. And I go back to what I wrote in the answer above, the mountains really are what it is like to live every day with MS. We have to try a little harder, take a little longer and dig a little deeper but all of us will reach our own summit with and for MS.
It is because of MS that I knew I had to make a second attempt of Everest. I wanted to really push at my diagnosis. I wanted to be honest to myself and most importantly honest to all the thousands of people I have had the honor of speaking to over the years with MS. I travel the country and speak to so many MS audiences and I tell them to keep trying, keep pushing and live a full life despite the MS. For me to be honest with my mission, to myself and to all of us with MS I had to return to Everest and try again.
Digging deep and being totally honest, what is your greatest fear with your MS?
In the first few years I was fearful. I am not afraid of anything with my MS anymore. I can’t live in fear. I could go out the door and be hit by a bus and I can’t live that way. Instead I have become a very different person than I was pre-MS. I have experienced a life filled with excitement, adventure, challenge and wonderful people living with MS.
What is your greatest hope with MS?
I, like all of us living with MS or caring for someone with MS, desperately want a cure to be found. A world free of MS. In the meantime my greatest hope is that those living with this disease will be able to find something that they are passionate about, something they love to do and during the time their minds are busy they will forget that they have MS. They will hear their souls and soar.
In addition to treating your MS with a disease-modifying drug, have you made any lifestyle or dietary changes specifically to improve your MS well-being?
In addition to my daily Copaxone [taken since 1998] I try to live a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise. This isn’t something exclusive to MS, we all need to try and be as healthy as we can.
What is your favorite MS-friendly food or recipe?
Not sure I have a favorite, I’ll eat just about anything.
What final words of advise or encouragement would you like to leave with our community members today?
I know hearing you have Multiple Sclerosis is extremely frightening. I always tell people that they are entitled to grieve and mourn and be fearful and that those emotions will come and go. But they also need to know that there is a full life with and for MS. Possibly it wasn’t the life they envisioned for themselves but they can make it anything they want. They need to become pro-active, learn all they can about MS, get on a therapy like Copaxone and go climb that mountain, the view is incredible!
Thank you so much, Wendy!!
Desiring to give back to the communities which have supported and touched her on her many journeys, Wendy created The Other Side of Everest Educational Foundation. The Foundation supports the children of deceased Sherpas, aims to improve the lives of both children and mothers in Nepal, as well as educating and inspiring under-privileged and challenged school children in the United States. The Foundation grew from Wendy’s desire to support one baby whose mother was widowed at age 19 after her Sherpa husband died in a climbing accident in 2008.
Although I might disagree with her after speaking, Wendy says that she “was nothing extraordinary” before MS; if not for MS, she was on her way to “becoming a couch potato.” Serendipity works in mysterious ways. With MS, Wendy has found a way to make a difference in other people’s lives...literally around the globe.
“Go For It!! What’s the worse that could happen?”
Wendy is sponsored in part by Teva Neuroscience as a member of Team COPAXONE® (who happens to be looking for a new member).