Moving mountains for MS
He got a cortisone shot in the eye and the anti-inflammatory injection seemed to do the job.
“Two days later I could see again and I thought, “Great I’m cured,'” says the soft-spoken Clifford, who picks his words carefully and forms thoughts haltingly – a small reminder of Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, a disease with which he was diagnosed three years ago.
Throughout his 20s, problems persisted for the sinewy man, who has always considered himself a competitive person with a compulsive streak when it comes to physical fitness.
In 1995, the accomplished triathlete fell during a cross-country skiing trip on Beaver Creek and noticed that his hip was numb.
“I just fell over and it didn’t hurt,” he says, remembering one of many instances during a 10-year-period starting in 1990 when he would be reminded that “something was wrong with me.”
The veteran of too many bike races and trail run competitions to count found himself suddenly sensitive to temperature changes.
A life-long runner and avid hiker and climber, Clifford says he began to feel fatigued where before he “would literally run up a hillside.” His inner equilibrium seemed off to the point where he would miss obstacles and bump into things.
There was the time when he competed in a triathlon in Las Vegas and noticed that his running time was unusually slow.
“I would usually do really well here in Colorado, but there I didn’t run as well, I didn’t feel as good. The heat really bothered me,” he remembers.
For a while, Clifford tried to ignore feelings of weakness, numb limbs, blurred vision and problems with his speech, and continue to do the things that had given him joy all his life – since he was a little boy growing up near the Appalachian Trail.
“I’ve always liked being outdoors, hiking, being out in nature, seeing wildlife. When you are sitting on a ridge, you just realize it is all so perfect,” he says, scanning the surrounding hillsides even while sipping coffee at a local coffee shop and interrupting an oblivious questioner to point out a red-tail hawk drawing lazy circles in the afternoon breeze.
About five years ago, Clifford says he began making compromises – uneasy truces – for someone who had always pushed himself to the limit, and then a little farther.
“I gave up on triathlons. I switched from mountain-biking to road-biking. I went slower,” he says with a slow smile that accompanies almost everything he says. “I just became more aware of what I could do and what I couldn’t do as fast as I like to.”
At 37, Clifford appears to be content with life – and at peace with the hand that life has dealt him.
In 1999, after a decade of not knowing, he greeted his diagnosis with MS, a chronic neurological disorder that randomly attacks the central nervous system, with little surprise and much relief.
“I was almost glad knowing what it was. The diagnosis itself was almost meaningless,” he says, again punctuating his thought with a slow, shy grin.
The diagnosis coincided with an especially challenging time in his life.
Thinking back, he knows now that the slow time in Las Vegas “was very likely an early onset of MS.” But by the time he had officially become a sufferer of disease, his speech had become so slurred and his eye-hand coordination so shaky he had to have a friend help him fill out insurance forms at his job as a waiter at Beano’s Cabin in Beaver Creek.
An 11-year veteran of serving fine food to people on Beaver Creek Mountain, Clifford says the disease for the first time became more than an inconvenience.
“In the wait business you have to be verbal. I could barely speak,” he says. “I could barely carry a tray.”
He quickly learned from other MS sufferers and Internet support groups that life with MS is a constant struggle to regain and retain neurological functions the healthy person takes for granted.
“I would go out on hikes and recite the lord’s prayer,” he says, with a laugh, about his personalized regiment to combat his speech troubles. “It would be hard at first, then easier, then the words would come back.”
He says he learned quickly that MS, albeit chronic and hard to treat, isn’t a death sentence. It’s a life sentence.
“You can live a normal life. You just have to be more aware of your limitations. You have to be more in control. You have to monitor yourself every day,” he says.
To combat the disease, Clifford eats healthy, sleeps enough and “tries not to do too much in the morning.” He takes a combination of vitamins, drugs and herbs. He exercises every day.
“That’s what’s so nice about living here in Vail. I’ve got so many friends that will call me up to do this or that,” he says with another small smile. “I’m lucky that way. I don’t have an excuse not to exercise.”
Although no cure for MS has been found, staying physically active is key, Clifford says.
“You have to break down your own personal barriers,” says Clifford, who suffers from Relapsing-Remitting MS, the most common form of MS, characterized by flare-ups and loss of certain neurological functions followed by almost complete recovery. Other forms include Progressive-Relapsing MS, where sufferers lose certain functions following each flare-up and Primary-Progressive MS, which subjects sufferers to a steady decline in healthy nerve functions.
People with MS lose neurological functions because myelin, the protective insulation around nerves, is gradually degraded by chronic inflammation. Destroyed myelin is then replaced with hard, sclerotic tissue that makes it harder for nerves to transmit orders from the brain. Exercise, physical therapy and medication can slow the erosion of myelin.
“Things will creep up on you, but I’ve learned to know the signs. I pay close attention to myself and I up my medication and figure out how to keep myself from losing certain functions affected during a relapse,” Clifford says.
Because the disease has made him sensitive to heat, Clifford stays away from saunas, though, he says, he doesn’t mind a beach vacation now and then.
Because alcohol damages neurological functions, he doesn’t drink himself into a stupor every weekend – or else MS would punish him.
He says he is OK with that.
“My life with MS isn’t about disability. It’s about ability,” he says adding that the disease has made him appreciate life more and treat himself with more care than most of his age do.
“I think I have a better attitude about life,” he says. “I try to stay charged in body and mind.”
He practises martial arts and yoga. He travels frequently.
“In the 13 years I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve ever spent an off-season here,” he says, adding that his travels have taken him near and far – from Moab, Utah, to Nepal and South America.
Because he was never a couch potato, he says, he has a natural advantage over MS sufferers who have lived sedentary lifestyles prior to their diagnosis.
“It’s easier to be active, if you were before MS then if you have to now, because you have MS,” he says.
That is the prime reason Clifford says he decided to participate in an expedition that will take him to Alaska.
Loaded down with a 75-pound pack, Clifford is scheduled to leave for Anchorage, Alaska, on a quest to climb awe-inspiring “Denali,” or Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak at 20,320 feet above sea level with a group of five other MS sufferers.
Sponsored by Berlex Laboratories Inc., the maker of Betaseron, an MS drug, the six participants, under the leadership of Eric Simons, a 47-year-old mountaineer and himself an MS sufferer, hope to inspire others with neurological diseases.
“We are doing this to prove to others that just because you have a disease like MS doesn’t mean you can’t push your limits,” says Clifford. “I hope we’ll raise awareness that physical fitness is really the best way to manage this disease.”
The group will not be assisted by porters or guides and plans to summit Denali sometime between June 1 and 4 after acclimatizing in four separate camps.
“I’m excited for it and I think I’m ready for it,” says Clifford, who has climbed among others, Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, at 19,340 feet. “With the weather you never know. It’ll be an adventure, I like adventures.”
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 602 or at email@example.com