Retired Canadian hockey player Bryan Bickell sat down with HealthCentral to talk about hockey, multiple sclerosis, fatherhood, and his new service dog program for people living with MS.
Bickell, 31, played in the National Hockey League from 2006 to 2017 for the Chicago Blackhawks and the Carolina Hurricanes. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November 2016.
Health Central (HC): As a professional athlete, what were the initial symptoms that concerned you the most and how long did it take to get a diagnosis of MS?
Bryan Bickell (BB): I had a pain in my shoulder, which I thought was from sleeping on it wrong. I brushed it off, took some Aleve, and moved on with my day like many athletes with injuries do. Then it went down my arm and a week later down to my legs. I was really concerned. I’d been through a lot of injuries and knew that something was off. Days later, I had an MRI and got the news.
HC: What were your biggest fears after your MS diagnosis?
BB: If things were going to get better. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play hockey, or if I would feel the way I did [at that moment] for the rest of my life. But due to the MS treatment I’ve been taking now for six or seven months it’s gotten a lot better. I feel awesome right now and things are looking positive.
HC: Did your neurologist steer you away from sports?
BB: No, I don’t think so. If anything, he wanted to push me more. My family and I made a decision that for me to be healthy and live a happy life after hockey, [it was important] to hang up the skates. I felt my hockey career was almost a storybook tale. We’re happy with what happened and now we’re going to focus on living a happy life with our two young daughters.”
HC: When you started to share your diagnosis with friends, family, and teammates, what was the most helpful support or reaction that you received?
BB: From my teammates, my family members, and my wife. I knew that they could support me 100%. They were behind me through the good and the bad. [Knowing] that I had that support team gave me the drive to push on. If I didn’t have them, I don’t think that I would be sitting here. I’m just truly lucky to have those people in my life to get me through the hard times.
HC: So Bryan, you’ve revealed your diagnosis publicly and retired from a career you loved, which are significant life-changing events. What’s next for you? What do you have going on?
BB: For right now, just relaxing. I’ve got two young girls under three. I wasn’t around all the time — being on the road and at the rink — so for now I’m enjoying being a dad and working with the foundation we started in 2012 . The Bryan and Amanda Bickell Foundation trains dogs to help provide people with MS with service dogs [to meet emotional or mobility] needs. I’m also working with Biogen to spread my story, [which has] inspired a lot of people.
Bickell explained how pit bulls are often misunderstood. His foundation began by rescuing, training, and placing pit bulls into good homes. Bryan and his wife have personally welcomed a rescue dog into their family. The Foundation expanded their focus to pair rescue dogs and abused children living in group homes together for mutual support. Now the Foundation is expanding again to train and provide service dogs to people living with MS.
HC: Are pit bulls typically service dogs?
BB: Yeah, we’re going to train them. I know that it’s not going to take a month or two; it’s going to take six months to a year. But these dogs are really smart and loyal. We’ve used them for the kids and now we can use them for service. It’s going to be free of charge from our Foundation to fit these people’s needs of emotion or stability. We’ll train these dogs, which we’re willing to do, to service these people.
HC: Will the dogs be puppies or rescue dogs?
BB: It could be both. We might rescue a year-old dog out of a bad situation and train them for a year to service a particular person. Or an older rescue dog that’s willing to be trained. These dogs are very smart and they’re often misunderstood. That’s why people take advantage of them, which is unfortunate.
HC: Where can people go to learn more about your program if they’re interested in contributing or signing up to request a dog?
BB: You can go to the Bryan and Amanda Bickell Foundation website to learn more about service dogs. To read more about my MS story you can go on Facebook.com/Tysabri.
Thank you for sharing your story, Bryan. We’re excited that you’re doing so well.
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Lisa Emrich is a patient advocate, accomplished speaker, author of the award-winning blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA, and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers. Lisa uses her experience to educate patients, raise disease awareness, encourage self-advocacy, and support patient-centered research. Lisa frequently works with non-profit organizations and has brought the patient voice to health care conferences and meetings worldwide. Follow Lisa on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.