Lisa Emrich was playing the French horn at a concert in 2005 when two of her fingers on her left hand suddenly went numb. “I couldn’t feel my fingertips and realized I didn’t know where the keys were,” she says. She muddled through the performance, but suspected that something was seriously wrong.
Emrich, 48, who works as a music teacher in Falls Church, Virginia, was diagnosed with MS. “After the diagnosis, I was very frightened, not knowing what else could happen.”
The following year was tough. She had several relapses and struggled to come to terms with her weakening body. “There was a lot of crying involved,” she admits.
She worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep playing the French horn. In addition to the numbness, she experienced weakness in her left arm. “The left arm handles a lot of the weight of the instrument,” she says.
Help From Others
Emrich’s neurologist invited her to participate in a monthly seminar series for people who were newly diagnosed. The meetings gave participants the chance to ask the doctor questions and meet other people with the disease. “It was a great coping mechanism,” she says.
Initially, she was treated with a course of steroids and began taking an injectable disease-modifying medication, glatiramer acetate (Copaxone). Still, she experienced symptoms of weakness and numbness in different parts of her body for about a year and a half. In 2007, she was also diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and began taking medications to treat that condition.
In 2009, Emrich had gotten to the point where she was having difficulty standing up. She recounts, “My legs and hip flexors had become weak and I had spasticity in my legs. The numbness was affecting my perception of where I was in space, which affected my balance.”
A Different Treatment
When Emrich’s doctor put her on rituximab (Rituxan), her symptoms abated, and her mobility improved. She had physical therapy and balance training and even bought a bicycle. “I’m much stronger now,” she says. “I can cycle for 20 miles.”
Emrich went for four years without a relapse, but in 2016 had a minor one and started a round of steroids. As with other relapses, she felt angry, annoyed, and scared. “However, the fear is not quite the same as the ‘unknown future fears’ that occurred at the beginning,” she says. “By being in touch with so many people with MS who have had a variety of experiences, I am more knowledgeable about the spectrum of possible consequences.”
Emrich continues to experience numbness in her limbs, yet she is able to perform, and she teaches French horn and piano, accompanying her students to events.
A patient advocate, a disease ambassador, and an MS blogger, Emrich finds meaning in helping others cope. Her advice: “You’ll probably feel like you are on a roller coaster, but you can go through these cycles many times and still be okay. It will get better."