Judawn Merritt stopped mid-sentence to hop up from her Prosser living room couch and retrieve a scrapbook filled with recent pictures of her son playing in a basketball game.
The mother of four proudly showed off snapshots of Luke Merritt, 12, jumping for a rebound and gliding toward the hoop for a layup. With each flip of the page, her enthusiasm became more and more palpable.
There is nothing out of the ordinary about a parent gushing over her child’s latest accomplishment. But the scrapbook Merritt held on her lap represented much more than just childhood moments captured in time.
It symbolized a small victory in the ongoing battle the Merritt family has waged against multiple sclerosis since Luke was diagnosed with the unpredictable disease a year ago.
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The pictures are proof that Luke refuses to let the disease steal his childhood.
“Luke deals with MS every day,” said Judawn, whose husband, Doug, is the Prosser fire chief. “He just wants to be like everyone else.”
Luke, who was 11 at the time, came home from school last year in April and complained of a partially numb lip, Judawn said. It was allergy season and the Merritts thought maybe he was having a bad reaction to some medication they’d given him.
Over the next few days, the numbness began to spread into his left fingertips, hand and then arm, Judawn said. He began to lose his balance and started walking oddly. It was clear his body was failing him.
Realizing something was not right, Judawn told Luke they were going to a movie in the Tri-Cities, she said. Once in the car, she convinced him to go to the hospital. Doctors ordered an MRI, then made their diagnosis.
“They said, ‘Well, he has MS, and he needs to go to Children’s (Hospital in Seattle),’ ” Judawn said.
About one in 500 people in Washington are diagnosed with MS and only about 5 percent of those are children, making Luke’s diagnosis rare, said Dr. James Bowen, director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center at Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle. Doctors do not know what causes MS, and there is no cure.
More than 2.3 million people worldwide are believed to be affected by MS, according to the Nation Multiple Sclerosis Society.
The disease can cause motor, sensory and vision problems, weakness, high fatigue and cognitive impairment, Bowen said. Most frightening is the uncertainty. It can cause a person’s immune system to attack parts of the central nervous system, leading to permanent damage.
About three-quarters of those diagnosed with MS are women. White people tend to get the disease more than black people, though recent studies have shown the gap has closed, Bowen said. Also, people who live in the northern tier of the world are more prone.
“The demographics of the disease are fascinating,” Bowen said. “Somewhere in there is a clue to what causes it.”
Luke — who along with his sister, Hannah, was adopted by the Merritts — stayed in the Seattle hospital for more than a week, taking steroids and getting prodded by a team of doctors, Judawn said. When he returned to Prosser, he worked with physical therapists to slowly learn how use his body again.
Each person with MS can experience different symptoms and degrees of disability, Bowen said.
Luke battles extreme fatigue, muscle problems and other issues related to the disease, his parents said. He was active in athletics, but the problems initially prevented him from playing the sports he loved.
“There can be muscle fatigue where your muscles give out earlier and you have to rest,” Bowen said. “But there’s also this feeling of exhaustion. It’s difficult to get motivated for exercise.”
Luke also has to battle emotional issues in addition to the physical hurdles, his parents said. When his body broke down, he was left with some post-traumatic stress and feared going to school.
“He has had nightmares of being at school, not being able to move and there’s no one around to help,” his father Doug said.
During the next few months, Luke learned how to adapt, resting when his body called for it and getting used to taking a weekly shot to try and control the disease, Judawn said. The family also jumped on board, spending time at a Texas camp for kids with MS and carefully researching the disease.
Being educated about the disease is critical, especially for times when an MS attack strikes unexpectedly.
During attacks, which are random, the immune system targets some part of the brain, spinal cord or optic nerve, Bowen said. A person deals with different symptoms depending on which area the immune system attacks.
The immune system eventually backs off and the healing process slowly begins, but people are routinely left with lasting damage, Bowen said. A person averages about one attack a year, though that number can vary.
Luke has not had an attack since the initial episode he experienced before he was diagnosed, Judawn said. His mother credits the shot he gets for preventing him from relapsing.
Bowen recently read a book where a man diagnosed with MS compared the disease and an attack to being run over by a bus.
“With MS, you have been hit by bus, you know that the bus can hit you again, and you are walking with your back to traffic,” said Bowen, quoting the book.
Judawn has taken on the role of teacher during the past year, as Luke has not been able to return to school yet. The family is hopeful he can go back part time for eighth grade.
Luke returned to playing on a basketball team again in the fall, allowing him to socialize with kids his age and return to sports. The basketball season gave him confidence to turn out for baseball. He is playing pitcher and first base for a school team.
There are still daily battles — Luke collapsed after a recent game — but also great triumphs, like striking out the side in a game April 29 on the one-year anniversary of when he came home with the numb lip.
The diagnosis has taught the Merritt family to appreciate life, talk about the disease and discuss the uncertainty over Luke’s future with him, they said.
Although it’s difficult explaining to people what the family goes through, the Merritts are thankful for the progress Luke has shown and hopeful one day there will be a cure.
“All we want for him is to be a normal 12-year-old,” Judawn said. “Go to school, play ball and have a crush.”