Sarah Antonacci walks confidently out of Bakeless, an academic building on the campus of Bloomsburg University, after her last 8 a.m. final of the semester, and of her college career. Walking in itself may not seem like an accomplishment, but for Antonacci, who just seven years ago learned she had Multiple Sclerosis and has been in and out of a wheelchair since, it is.
Multiple Sclerosis, also called MS, is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system. This disease is at times disabling, and thought to be an autoimmune disease, as often times the body’s own immune system will attack the substance around the nerve fibers in the central nervous system, damaging them and causing distorted and interrupted nerve impulses to travel to and from the brain and spinal cord. Every case of MS is different, and every person who has the disease reacts differently to it.
In July 2001, Antonacci began experiencing optic neuritis, which is an inflammation of the optic nerve. When her eyes began to cross, and she was experiencing double vision, Antonacci went to a neuro-opthamologist. “He thought I had a lazy eye. He was going to do surgery to cut the muscle in my eye. I wanted a second opinion,” Antonacci says.
She was referred to a pediatric neurologist at Geisinger Hospital in Danville. In the meantime, her symptoms progressed, and Antonacci experienced extreme headaches, numbness and tingling in her arms and legs, and by October of the same year, she was confined to a wheelchair. An issue that one doctor thought was a lazy eye, was obviously something much more extreme.
Antonacci went through a series of tests at Geisinger, including having a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan (MRI), a lumbar puncture, commonly known as a spinal tap, and countless rounds of blood work. “I’m sure they thought it was MS, but they just had to confirm it,” Antonacci says. During the testing, she was hospitalized for a week, while she received high doses of a steroid that helped to suppress her immune system so it was unable to attack itself. This allowed partial relief of the inflammation in her muscles that Antonacci was experiencing.
On Valentine’s Day, 2002, Antonacci started chemotherapy. “The progression [of the MS] was so rapid I had lost all ability to do anything independently. I even needed to be fed.” A little over a month later, she was out of the wheelchair temporarily and doing things on her own again due to her treatments. She couldn’t walk as fast as she had before, but she was walking.
She still had to undergo chemotherapy treatments once every month for six months, and then every three months for a year even though she was walking again, just to make sure it wasn’t a temporary fix. “It worked,” Antonacci says, shrugging her shoulders and adjusting her black book bag on her back. “I’ve been in and out of a wheelchair over the years, but I always come out because of the medications.”
When Antonacci came to Bloomsburg, she entered as an Accounting major, but over the years, she decided it would be best to switch her major to English, with a minor in Anthropology. Antonacci coordinates with Accommodative Services on campus, to help make classes and treatments more convenient. Currently, she receives monthly treatments of a steroid called Decadron, which eases inflammation, and helps to keep existing symptoms such as numbness, and tingling, especially in her legs, at bay. “I have my ups and downs, but it has never affected my grades,” Antonacci says.
Even though she changed her major, Antonacci will still be graduating in the anticipated four years. “It’s amazing, because my neurologists told me that it would take me at least five years to graduate, if I even finished school because of my health issues.”
After graduation, Antonacci is looking forward to moving into a townhouse with her sister Kimmy, 22. “I’m scared,” Antonacci says, grabbing the straps of her book bag and beginning to walk toward her car parked behind Bakeless. “I have to get a job that I can physically do. Otherwise, though, I’m excited.”
Opening the door of her car and tossing her backpack inside, Antonacci pauses for a moment before stepping inside. “The doctors tell me one day I’ll inevitably be in a wheelchair.” She shakes her head and smiles. “There are no other treatments left for me to receive that are strong enough to work.” As she climbs inside and puts on her seatbelt, she adds, almost as an afterthought, but in classic Antonacci style, “There are two sides to everything. Good, and bad. Old and new. If my legs fail me, at least I’d still have my arms.”