Eric Lee didn’t know much about multiple sclerosis (MS) when he did his first grueling 150-mile bike ride in support of two friends who have the disease. “I knew it was a debilitating disease that affected motor skills,” he says now. “Richard [a good friend since the two were boys growing up in the Tidewater area of Virginia] had to stay on the treadmill in order for the disease not to progress. And Rhonda (a media buyer with whom he worked at a Florida radio station) was walking fine, and the next day she was walking with a cane.”
MS, an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system attacks the brain and nervous system, develops less frequently in African Americans than in Caucasians. But studies show we often have a more severe form of the disease and tend to have trouble walking and other troubling symptoms of MS sooner than whites. There is treatment, but there is no cure.
What Lee also didn’t know when he first hopped on his bike for that Miami to Key Largo and back ride (with no training) was how personally MS was going to affect his life.
In late 2007, he bumped into a wall while walking down the hall at work. “I thought I had an inner ear infection,” he says. When the antibiotics he was given didn’t seem to help—and he developed another odd problem: double vision—his doctor suggested an MRI.
The diagnosis? Lee had MS. A spinal tap showed it was relapsing remitting MS, which is the less aggressive version. Suddenly he was getting a crash course in the disease. “You always have it,” he says, “but you may not always have symptoms. You try to manage those with therapy. It’s not horrible, but you have to be mindful of what’s happening in your brain.”
So far, Lee’s disease has been stable. Aside from occasional double vision, losing his balance from time to time and a weaker right side, he maintains with a shot of an amino acid each night before bed. He monitors himself closely and tries to avoid things that can trigger a relapse, like extreme heat and stress. “My doctor said, ‘A crazy woman who gives you stress will kill you,’” he says with a laugh.
Though the medical community doesn’t know what causes MS, Lee wonders sometimes about the source of his case. “I’m not the only person from Newport News (Virginia) who went to my high school who has come down with MS,” he muses. “At one time they told us we couldn’t go into the high school because they were taking out asbestos. And it’s an industrial town, with shipbuilding.”
His friend, Richard, can no longer walk. And Rhonda uses a cane full-time. Lee, who now lives in Atlanta, still saddles up every summer for the 150-mile Bike MS ride. He’s just more careful now to train for it, working out on an elliptical at home and riding a gutted-out rail system in the early mornings. He eats properly whether he’s training or not. During the ride, he comes down off the mountain at high noon so he doesn’t overheat.
And he tries to stay positive. “When you first get your diagnosis, you think the worst is about to happen. But if you succumb to that thinking, you start stressing yourself out,” Lee says. “You get a little more clarity about how precious and fragile life really is when you live with something that could cripple you or put you to rest. Sunrises mean a lot more than they used to. The transition from winter to spring, summer to fall—you treasure those.”