Federal Way multiple sclerosis sufferers find strength in support

When he experienced an episode of fuzzy vision, Cermit Rickey traveled the world to see the things he'd always wanted to see.

When he experienced an episode of fuzzy vision, Cermit Rickey traveled the world to see the things he’d always wanted to see. His walls are covered with photos: Pictures of the Puget Sound at sunset, a bear catching fish in the wilderness of Canada, the Eiffel Tower in Paris — all images he thought he may never see if his multiple sclerosis (MS) caused his vision to fade.

“I wasn’t sure what the disease would do to me,” Rickey said.

When Cermit Rickey first heard the diagnosis of MS, it didn’t shock him. His own research into his symptoms had all led back to MS.

He joined a support group, making friends with others who shared his struggles.

Today, the disease is in much the same state it was more than a decade ago, thanks to his drug regiment, and Rickey reaches out to help others cope with the autoimmune disorder.

A disease without a cure

MS is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system, the brain, the spinal cord and the optic nerves. Symptoms can be mild, showing as a numbness in the limbs, or severe, causing paralysis and loss of vision.

According to National Multiple Sclerosis Society, MS is caused when the body’s own defense system attacks the myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds and protects the nerve fibers in the central nervous system. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue, known as sclerosis. Without the myelin, the electrical signals sent through the brain and spinal cord are disrupted or halted. It’s the inability of the nerves to communicate that cause the symptoms of MS.

About 400,000 Americans have MS. Worldwide, that number is about 2.5 million. Women are twice as likely as men to have MS. There is currently no cure for MS, but treatments can slow the course of MS.

Rickey’s diagnosis

A year before Rickey moved from New Jersey to Federal Way, he had begun experiencing a peculiar sensation: Half of his face would go numb. His doctor back east couldn’t figure it out and the symptoms faded away. After his move to Federal Way in 1997, the symptoms returned, and others materialized, including problems walking.

After visiting a neurologist, the diagnosis came back as MS.

During the period of when he was waiting to be diagnosed, his spine did receive some damage from the sclerosis, which forces him to walk with the aid of a cane.

Rickey said his cognitive skills have not been impacted by the disease, so he can still work as a metallurgical engineer.

Federal Way support group

Rickey joined the Federal Way MS support group shortly after his diagnosis, starting in 1999. He worried before his first meeting that it would be a lot of “woe is me.”

“I never laughed so hard in two years,” said Rickey, who eventually began leading the meetings. “I could ask anything.”

The meetings take place 6:30 to 8 p.m. the third Thursday of every month at Group Health, 301 S. 320th St.

It’s a time filled with questions, camaraderie and thoughts on treatments — what works, what doesn’t and what’s coming out. Sometimes there are speakers, doctors or drug companies.

Rickey said meetings can draw anywhere from eight to 20 patients.

“Everybody’s together, we all understand,” he said. “They helped me out in 1999, and I’ve seen the same thing with people who come in.”

Learn more

There are several support groups in the area including Kent, Auburn and Tacoma. Call Gregg Robinson at (206) 284-4254 ext. 243 or visit www.nationalmssociety.org.