To see Leigh Kaplan powering through her job as a physical therapist or skiing the powdery slopes of Breckenridge, Colorado, you’d never guess the 30-year-old has multiple sclerosis.
“Nobody would ever choose to have MS,” says Kaplan, who lives in New York City. “But I really like the life I’m living now more than my life five years ago. I don’t know that I’d have gotten here as fast as I did had MS not happened to me. It truly puts your life in perspective and focuses you.”
Kaplan was in the last semester of her doctoral program in physical therapy in 2013 when the vision in her left eye became blurry. A few weeks later, she noticed reduced sensitivity on her right thigh when she was shaving her legs in the shower. She decided to see an ophthalmologist, which led to a visit with a retinal specialist, and
finally a neuro-ophthalmologist, who
suspected she might have MS.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans showed multiple lesions on her spine, so Kaplan was given steroids and hospitalized while doctors confirmed the diagnosis. She wasn’t put on an MS drug immediately, but when she started having blurry vision in her other eye a couple of weeks later, she was put on another course of steroids and prescribed a disease-modifying therapy, administered via monthly infusion. She hasn’t had an exacerbation since then.
Managing Everyday Symptoms
Still, Kaplan is reminded of her MS every day. Her No. 1 symptom is fatigue, which she has learned to manage over time. “MS fatigue is a lot different than ordinary fatigue. It’s stop-you-in-your tracks, you-need-to-take-a-break type of fatigue,” she says. “However, the longer you live with it, the easier it becomes to manage. You know your body a lot better, so you’re not trying to push through in a way that you can’t push through.”
She’s found that taking minibreaks makes a big difference. “Even if it’s just 10 minutes, you sit down—maybe in a dark room—you relax, and then you start,” Kaplan says. Meditation and yoga have helped.
She has also eliminated dairy and gluten products from her diet and tries to avoid processed foods. “For me, cutting all of those things really fights fatigue—and contributes to a healthier life,” she says.
These measures helped her finish her degree and build up her work schedule. “When I was first diagnosed, it was like, ‘How am I going to do this job?’” she says. “I want to help people maximize their function, and now I’m in these shoes.”
She experimented with different strategies to maximize her potential at work. “This was my dream career, and I wanted to keep pursuing it,” she says. “I didn’t want to just give up. Over time I’ve built up the number of days I’m working. I’m really just like any other therapist now, even though I have my days. But so does everybody.”
Kaplan also has bladder issues, requiring her to urinate frequently, and she deals with vertigo, especially when the weather is warm. She also experiences some pain on the right side of her body.
She was afraid she might not be as athletic as she had been before her MS diagnosis. She played basketball in college and loves to ski. The disease hasn’t changed that. “When you’re living with something you feel like you can’t control, there’s something about standing on a mountaintop looking down and realizing, ‘OK, you’re taking on this huge challenge and succeeding,’” she says. “You just feel invincible.”
The MS Dating Game
Single when she was diagnosed, Kaplan also worried about her prospects for dating. She didn’t go out with anyone for two years—and she’s glad. “I wanted to just get really comfortable living with this disease instead of putting a burden on someone else,” she says. “I didn’t know how to live with it yet. I also got confident with telling my story, so that when you’re on that fourth or fifth date and you’re telling somebody about what’s going on with you, it doesn’t come from a place of embarrassment or feeling uncomfortable: ‘This is who I am. Bad things happen to people. Take it or leave it.’”
By the time she met Daniel Krauss, the man who would become her husband, she was comfortable in her skin. Their relationship took off. “I got extremely lucky and met the love of my life,” Kaplan says. “And he’s so supportive and understanding about this disease.” The couple married in October 2018 on a mountaintop in upstate New York.
A Quarter Million Raised for MS Research
Almost from the beginning, Kaplan felt the need to contribute to the MS cause and raise awareness of the disease. Since 2015, she has captained a team in the annual Climb to the Top NYC fund-raising event for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which involves ascending 66 flights of stairs to the top of Rockefeller Center. The team, dubbed Team Kapniss—a nod to Katniss, the fearless heroine of the Hunger Games series—has raised more than $250,000 for MS research.
“It’s one of the best life-changing things I ever did for myself,” Kaplan says. “When you’re diagnosed, all you’re thinking is, ‘Why me?’ Then you see how many people are impacted and that participating in such a big thing can make a change in other people’s lives.”
She likes to reassure people who have recently been diagnosed with MS. “I really wish that I could have talked to somebody like me—now five years out—rather than being left with the internet, where the outlook can seem very dark,” she says. “Truthfully, MS is so different now than it was even 10 years ago. Getting firsthand accounts of people who are living and thriving despite the challenges of the disease can be very empowering.”
Her physician, Brian R. Apatoff, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Multiple Sclerosis Institute in New York City, says, “Leigh has not let her diagnosis slow her down, maintaining her wonderful positive approach to work and her personal life. As a healthcare professional, she is a great role model!”
Kaplan’s message to others? “Don’t let MS stop you.”