When Eileen Kneeland rides her bike, she looks like many other recreational cyclists: happy, smiling, and rolling along.
But unlike most other recreational cyclists, Eileen has Multiple Sclerosis.
Fourteen years ago, Eileen went to her doctor because she was not feeling well. On a Friday night, she was diagnosed with MS. By Sunday, she struggled to stand up.
It took Eileen a month of rehabilitation at the same hospital where she had worked as a physical therapy assistant before she was able to walk again. For Eileen, a former college athlete, this was a huge adjustment.
“It was hard to face the fact that I could barely get up and roll over.”
For Eileen, being an athlete helped her recover. “My muscle memory relearned things a lot faster. Also, because I had done physical therapy, I knew what I needed to do.”
What Eileen needed to do was not easy. For this long-distance swimmer, a woman who had always been active, just walking around the cul-de-sac where she lived was a challenge.
“When I first got home, I did walks around the circle. I’d measure how far I went by how many mailboxes I passed.”
The first year that she was diagnosed with MS, Eileen volunteered to help out at the MS walk. As her recovery progressed and she got stronger, Eileen was eventually able to do the walk itself.
Most people with a life-changing illness don’t describe themselves as fortunate. But that’s exactly how Eileen sees herself.
“I’m extremely fortunate, but I know I’ve worked hard to recover. I’m also a glass is half-full kind of person. That’s how my father taught me by how he lived, that’s how I’ve always approached life. Plus I have the support of my husband, Dave, a loving family, and great friends.”
Even with all of these supports, Eileen’s recovery has not been easy. For one, she has had several exacerbations of her MS. Fortunately, they have been controlled by changes in her medication.
As Eileen descirbes it, “There are so many options for treatment now if you get MS.” Once again, this glass half-full woman finds the good in whatever comes her way.
Life has changed greatly for Eileen since she was diagnosed with MS 14 years ago. Although she tried to return to her job as a PT assistant, the physical strain was too much. For a time, Eileen worked ran a work-study program at Holy Cross, her alma mater. But when a position doing community outreach for the Worcester D.A.’s office opened up, Eileen was all-in.
Eileen’s new job was an opportunity. It was also a big change, though one that she quickly embraced.
“I didn’t choose to have MS, but I can choose how I deal with it. And that’s what I focus on when I talk with kids about peer pressure and bullying: I talk with them about the fact that they have choices, too.”
Eileen’s life has changed, to be sure, since she was first diagnosed with MS. She no longer skis—she worries she might fall. But instead of focusing on what she can’t do, Eileen found something new that she can do: ride a bike.
Before she got MS, Eileen did not bike that much. Now, it’s a different story. “I love biking: I can go fast, I get to be outside, and it’s something that my husband Dave and I can do together.”
“When I’m on my bike, I don’t feel like I have MS. I feel centered and balanced.”
Eileen wants people to know that MS is not a life sentence, that you can still be active and happy. And because Eileen can still ride, she will do the Bike MS Martha’s Vineyard Ride on May 4th.
“It’s my way of riding for those who can’t ride.”
Centered and balanced, caring and giving: that’s Eileen, both on and off of the bike.
Full Disclosure: I donated to support Eileen’s ride.
More disclosure: it’s not too late to donate to Eileen.
Jonathan Simmons is the author of “Here For The Ride: A Tale of Obsession on Two Wheels.”