Multiple Sclerosis: Treating Myself, Treating Others

On a brisk February morning in 2014, Dan Nuzzo woke up gasping for air. His heart was racing and he could no longer sleep. That moment, Dan explained, was his “lowest point” since his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis two years before. Indeed, at this time, his symptoms were so severe that he postponed his physical therapy training for a second time.

Thankfully, Dan has since recovered, finished school, and works today as a physical therapist leading a multiple sclerosis support group for patients.

Understandably, Dan’s personal experience informs the work that he does today, and also his relationship to health and wellbeing. At Vital, we wanted to tell Dan’s story because it fits at the intersection of so many aspects of health: scientific research, patient care, ability, movement, spirituality, and narrative.

“During my first experience with MS,” Dan remembered, “I was lying there thinking, ‘What in the world happened?’ I was playing basketball just a month before, but then I found myself, at 24, in bed and too tired to move.”

His quickly worsening symptoms forced Dan to consider not only the fragility of his own health at an age when many people do not, but also what the experience of life without exercise and movement might be like for him. As a young athlete and budding physical therapist, this required a shift in his thinking. “I became more spiritual,” he mused, “Meditation, along with diet and exercise, was crucial to my healing. Storytelling also had a powerful impact on my recovery.”

His severe symptoms that February prompted Dan to tell people about his diagnosis. As a physical therapy student motivated by his own desire for better health, Dan had been researching MS for months. That is, when his symptoms were not too debilitating for him to do so. At the same time, though, he had revealed his diagnosis to very few people.

“That day,” Dan recalled, “I sloppily gathered all of my research together, combined it with my personal story, and published it in a very long post on Facebook. I finally told everyone that I had been diagnosed with MS, and that my heartbeat and breathing were getting worse. I said that I was sorry because I thought I could beat this thing, but at the time it was not looking good.”

Dan’s post did many things at once. It was an apology, a revelation, a moment of catharsis, and a plea for help.

It did, in fact, make him feel better. “Opening up to everyone,” Dan believed, “was my biggest turning point at one of my very lowest moments. After the post, I felt a weight lifted off of me. I had so many friends following my updates. They really shared the burden with me and made it possible for me to feel loved in a time of desperation and depression.” In the weeks following, Dan began to improve physically as well.

Dan’s health improved steadily and he returned to his rotations in August, graduating in May of 2015. “I was as close to full health at graduation as I had been since my MS diagnosis,” Dan told us enthusiastically.

Today Dan feels lucky to be as healthy as he is. After spending years consumed by MS symptoms, he can often forget about his health, but he also recognizes what a privilege it is to lose that focus on getting well and just enjoy being well.

This is why he continues to work with MS patients as a physical therapist. Physical movement, which was difficult for him when his symptoms were at their worst, plays a vital role in his work to help people living with multiple sclerosis now. Dan uses endurance exercises and strength and balance training with his clients.

His mental and physical experience with MS also informs his approach: “I can empathize very well with people with the illness. I know when a person needs to take it easy. People know their bodies and know when they can push it or need to stop. When I was sick, I spent plenty of days in bed, too tired to go to doctors’ appointments and definitely too tired to exercise. Other days, I could muster up the energy to exercise and it helped me a lot. I know many of my patients feel similarly.”

Dan also knows that his path to healing required tremendous emotional work and support. Telling his own story through social media was the beginning of that process for him, which is why he organized a support group for MS patients.

And as far as Dan’s scientific research regarding MS? His professors encouraged him to compile his work for an article in a medical journal. “I wrote a strictly scientific article,” Dan explains, “but it felt cold. It felt empty. Having experienced the pain and struggle of fighting the disease, I just felt incapable of talking about MS through data and statistics only.”

Dan has chosen instead to combine both scientific inquiry and personal experience in a memoir entitled Multiple Sclerosis: Healing from the Inside Out. He plans to finish his book next year.

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