OLD LYME, Conn. – Kids and teachers alike hoot and holler. Papers fly up into the air, falling to the ground in a massive heap. School’s out for the summer. For Heather Rumm, however, the 2011 school year at Oakdale Montville Public School may have been wrapping up, but issues with her health were only just beginning to unfold.
When Rumm began experiencing tingling in her feet, she attributed the sensation to her new sandals. However, overnight the tingling spread all the way up to her neck. Even though she could still walk, it was time to visit the doctor.
Despite the baffling symptoms, a neurological exam indicated a perfect bill of health. Unsatisfied, Rumm pursued further testing at Middlesex Hospital, where startling results from her spinal tap prompted doctors to admit her.
“When they told me I would have to stay in the hospital for a few days, my maternal instincts kicked in,” remembered Rumm. “My son and daughter still had two days of school left and end-of-the-year activities. While I wanted to be there for them, I knew something was wrong, so I agreed to stay.”
After five days in the hospital, an MRI showed 10 lesions in her brain and one on her spine. The diagnosis was undoubtedly multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating disease.
“With no history of MS in my family, I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Rumm. “The first thing that came to mind was Annette Funicello, who battled the disease for decades. The very thought filled me with fear. Even though I knew there was no cure and had no idea what the future would bring, I kept reminding myself it could be worse. I made a choice then and there that I would not give into this disease without a fight.”
More than 6,000 Connecticut residents, like Rumm, live with multiple sclerosis, a potentially debilitating disease for which there is no cure. Symptoms can include numbness and tingling in the extremities, difficulties with vision and speech, stiffness, and, in severe cases, complete paralysis.
Rumm, now 43, began researching the disease through National MS Society resources. She also began treatment immediately, trying a series of disease-modifying drugs to find one that suited her lifestyle with manageable side effects.
With her symptoms under control and a return to the classroom, Rumm began investigating ways to get more involved in the fight against MS. After reaching out to Michael Branda, who oversees team relations for the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter, Team Heather was born.
“Michael helped me set up my team and put a link to our Walk MS page on Facebook,” said Rumm, whose husband, Phil, and children were the first to sign on. “I couldn’t believe how receptive and supportive people were to my team. Families of children I taught more than 10 years ago reached out. People I hadn’t talked to since high school, as well as my family and friends, began to donate and join my team within days of sharing my link online.”
In 2013, Team Heather stepped out for the first time at Mitchell College, in New London. What Rumm originally thought would be a low-key, intimate family event soon became an enormous demonstration of support from more than 40 people. Friends showed their support in more ways than hitting the pavement, however. A friend and bus driver for East Lyme Public Schools was granted permission to bus Team Heather to last year’s walk. As if rolling up to the walk site in a big yellow school bus didn’t show enough unity, they also sported team t-shirts designed and donated by a local screen printing business, Shoreline Screen Printing.
This year Team Heather’s t-shirts will don their motto, “Not Going Down Without a Fight,” and a silkscreen of Kiwi, Rumm’s pet hedgehog. Ironically, Kiwi makes for the perfect mascot, as hedgehogs are the only animals prone to a disease that attacks the body in the same way MS does to humans.
“Life with multiple sclerosis is full of many ups and downs,” said Rumm. “Last summer, I felt amazing and confident going back to work. More recently, I have been experiencing the negative aspects of the disease. I am now on medical leave from work and have missed out on family activities, such as skiing and my children’s extracurricular activities. Even so, people look at me and say how healthy I seem. They just have no idea how much I am hurting inside, how difficult it is to be in my own body.”
Team Heather will step out for the 2014 Walk MS at Camp Harkness in Waterford, this year. More than 10,000 Connecticut residents will step out for the 2014 Walk MS, presented by Travelers, which will be held Saturday, April 5, in Madison and Westport and Sunday, April 6 at 10 more walk sites across the state.
“Knowing I have people who love and support me stepping out beside me at Walk MS means everything,” said Rumm. “At the end of the day, I think about my family and the little faces of the children I teach. They are my motivation to stay positive and I won’t let MS take that away from me.”
Funds raised by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Connecticut Chapter, through events such as Walk MS ensure ongoing scientific research to find better treatments and a cure, and provide vital programs and services offered by the chapter.
There is no fee to register for the 2014 Walk MS, however, participants are encouraged to form teams and raise funds. Finish line activities include entertainment, activities, and lunch, provided compliments of Subway restaurants and Coca-Cola.
Walk MS community partners include WTNH News 8, WUVN / WHTX Univision and WUTH Telefutura and Clear Channel Radio Connecticut, which includes The River 105.9, Country 92.5, KISS 95.7, ESPN 1410 AM, KC 101.3, 960 WELI, and ESPN 1300 AM. Other community partners include 95.9 The FOX, WCTY 97.7 and La Puertorriqueñisima 1120 AM.
For more information, to register or to donate to Team Heather, visit www.ctfightsMS.org and click on the 2014 Walk MS, presented by Travelers.