Words that changed my life... “It’s MS”

Today is World MS Day. Cork woman Michelle Hanley talks about life with the disease, which affects 9,000 people in Ireland
Words that changed my life... “It’s MS”
SUPPORT: Michelle Hanley with children Alex and Abbey. Picture; Larry Cummins

THIS time two years ago, life was great, I had returned to education. I had got my life together and had begun training as a hairdresser, I had two beautiful kids and a beautiful home for my little family.

OK, so being a single mother was never in the grand plan, but we were happy. Life was great. How things can change in the space of a few weeks.

I know that Valentine’s Day is a day where people hold special memories and anniversaries close to their hearts but for me, on February 14, 2015, just before my 25th birthday, my whole world came crashing down around me. It was the day my GP said four words that changed my life forever, “Michelle, it’s Multiple Sclerosis”.

How did it feel to hear those words? I have no idea, I was numb. Honestly, I had no idea what Multiple Sclerosis even was but just knew it wasn’t good. Looking back, I can’t remember the day properly I was in such a haze. I remember my GP trying to explain the diagnosis to me in simple terms and trying to put a positive spin on it. Sitting in my car, trying to make sense of it all, crying until there were no more tears left to cry. Stumbling home to tell my family the news I had received, watching my father’s face crumble in heartbreak, looking into my mother’s eyes as she struggled to stop herself from collapsing in devastation, watching the worry spread across my aunt’s face, looking at my two year old son playing on the floor oblivious to what was going on, watching my seven year old daughter outside playing happily with her friends.

I had no understanding of the diagnosis and worry set in, what about my kids? Will I be able to look after them? Will we no longer be the three musketeers? Will I be in a wheelchair? How bad is this really?

All of these questions in my head and nobody to answer them. In the days that followed I tried my best to hold it together, my children were my reason to get up each morning and for them I had no choice but to continue how I always had. I would get up and get through my day, get them ready for school/childminder, go to college, come home and do the same routine as every other day.

A few weeks later I woke up with the whole left side of my body numb/tingly as if someone had drawn a line down the middle of my body, my right side was unaffected but the left was completely dead. Panic set in and I had no idea of what to do, what was wrong with me? Is this MS? Is this numbness the start of my deterioration? I called my GP and he sent me straight to the Mercy University Hospital, I was admitted and ended up staying for a week.

Again another hazy period of time, a blur of blood tests, lumbar punctures, IV steroids, prodding and poking, eyes exams, MRI scans, x-rays, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, teams of doctors, student doctors, endless questionnaires, sympathetic looks, big words and phrases I didn’t understand. Relapse? Symptoms? Lesions? Exacerbations? Gilenya? Tecfidera? I remember feeling the most alone and scared I had ever felt in my life, I couldn’t even have visitors. Being away from my children absolutely broke my heart.

BATTLING ON: Michelle Hanley. Pic; Larry Cummins
BATTLING ON: Michelle Hanley. Pic; Larry Cummins

Looking back, I have one massive positive from that week, and that is the neurology team I am under. Dr O’Toole and my MS Nurse Niamh have been a tower of support. Dr O’Toole sat with me and tried her best to answer my questions as best she could. She provided me with so much vital information and introduced me to the wonderful organisation that is MS Ireland. I did start to feel a little more positive after this conversation.

The next day I was allowed home, my mother collected me from hospital and I couldn’t get into the car quick enough to see my beautiful babies sitting in the back. One thing I will never forget is the smiles that beamed from ear to ear on both their faces when they saw me. In the days that followed I was over the moon to be home with my children and family again. I did suffer severe migraines and back pain for a few weeks but slowly they started to become less regular until they stopped completely and life started slowly to return to normal.

I started to pull out the information leaflets and booklets I had been given and set upon the task of understating and managing this disease. I started trawling through the MS Ireland website and have never looked back. All of the information I needed was right there, I even got to read other peoples stories.

Eventually I plucked up the courage to pick up the phone and get in touch with a woman from MS Ireland called Patricia Lucey. That was the single best phone call I have ever made. She has been a rock for me to lean on, always there to talk and more importantly to listen. She has made several house calls to me and has even introduced me to meditation to help me manage my anxiety. Without the support of Patricia and MS Ireland I don’t know where I would be today.

I know not everyone is as lucky as I am and suffer a lot more than I do, I am merely trying to encourage fellow MS’ers to try grab the positive and run with it, there will be days when that seems the impossible but there is always a positive. You just have to find it.

I won’t lie, the last two years have been a rollercoaster of emotions, there has been numerous uphill battles and dark days. Between new lesions, relapses and changing medications there is always something to cast a little shadow of worry but daily that shadow is becoming smaller and smaller.

MS is no longer my first thought every morning upon waking and some days it doesn’t enter my thoughts at all. Somewhere along the way I have embraced my diagnosis and took it on headfirst.

I was left with little self-confidence, had gained almost two stone and hated what I saw in the mirror. One day last September I decided I needed to join Slimming World and the pounds started to fade away slowly.

My cousin, Laura, encouraged me to join the gym she uses regularly so I took the leap and fell in love with exercise and how it made me feel. I am slowly seeing big changes in my appearance as well as feeling so healthy. I strongly encourage anybody of any age or fitness to at least try a class in Mitchelstown Leisure Centre. I cannot speak highly enough of Agnes, Kenneth, Kevin, Philip, the instructors and the rest of the team.

The people I need to thank the most though are my friends and family, without them I would be nothing. Each one of them are there for me in their own way, even in my darkest times I can pick up the phone and within minutes my troubles are melted away and I’m laughing and positive again.

I can honestly say I have the bestest besties that anyone can have. I also have to thank my wonderful GP Dr. Herlihy and his secretary Katherine for the role they both have played and continue to play in my MS journey. They both go above and beyond to help me when I need them.

Earlier this year I decided that two years on it was time to give a little back and to embrace another fear, of heights and flying. I took part in a 10,000ft skydive for MS Ireland on April 8 as part of the ‘Kiss goodbye to MS’ campaign. I hoped that raising vital funds could mean that other people in similar situations can avail of the wonderful services that MS Ireland provide. The skydive was absolutely amazing. I set a fundraising target of €800 for myself but the amount of money that has come in has exceeded any of my expectations, I am still awaiting a few sponsorship cards but the figure is looking like exceeding €7,000 which I am delighted with!

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my story. The lesson I take from my journey is that a positive mentality helps with a healthy body.


There are 9,000 people in Ireland living with MS. The theme for this year’s World MS Day is ‘Life with MS’. To get involved or to donate on the day see http://www.ms-society.ie

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