Felicia Lopez was celebrating her 32nd birthday with a hike when she lost the ability to see the color green.
“Literally, I was staring at a forest of grey,” says Lopez. “But hey, it was my birthday, and I was invincible, right?” She made a mental note to call her doctor on Monday.
On the way back to the trailhead, Lopez tripped – a strange occurrence for someone who had no klutzy tendencies. Her head hurt, and she was hot – really, really hot. That was Saturday. By Tuesday, she was fully blind in her left eye. Her right foot and hand were both going numb. No longer feeling invincible, she went to the hospital.
“I emerged five hours later with a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, or MS,” says Lopez. “The MRI showed multiple lesions in both hemispheres, which meant the disease had been active for some time.” The excruciating headache and blindness was from inflammation in the optic nerve, a common symptom of the disease. But, as Lopez learned, her eyes wouldn’t be the only thing affected.
“My first neurologist basically told me to pick out a wheelchair,” says Lopez, “At the time, I was a dancer. I did yoga. I studied a Japanese form of karate. I hiked, I biked, I swam in oceans and lakes – developing a disease that took my legs, my balance, and my energy from me at a time when I exalted in my youth was shattering.”
Lopez was devastated and depressed as she tried to adjust to her new normal with MS. From the time she was diagnosed in 1999, things progressively worsened as the lesions in her brain continued to grow: “I had difficulty walking, sometimes needing a wall or someone to hold onto. I’ve been numb head to toe, struggled with painful spasticity in my legs and generally lived wondering when the next shoe was going to drop and I’d be disabled for good.”
Then, in 2013, a specialist approached Lopez with an opportunity: Would she want to be an early adopter of a new drug? Tecfidera had just been approved by the FDA as an alternative to the injectable interferons and high dose steroid infusions Lopez had received for the past 14 years. Thinking she had nothing to lose, Lopez signed on for the new treatment.
Within a year of beginning the Tecfidera, the accumulation of brain and spinal cord lesions slowed, and the crushing fatigue Lopez had experienced since her diagnosis began to lift. Within two years, she had better balance and stability. More importantly, she had hope.
“I began to dream about the future again. For me, living with MS had become an exercise in hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. I didn’t want to be crushed again when the other shoe dropped, which it often did – especially the first years after diagnosis.”
One day, two years into her new treatment, Lopez was feeling pretty good – great, even. The sun was shining and she wanted to get outside. She laced up some ratty old tennis shoes and decided to go out for a run – something she hadn’t done in years. “It wasn’t far, and it wasn’t fast,” Lopez laughs, “But who cares? I was running!” That September, she ran her first race (a local 5-miler) and began to wonder what else she could do. When she met an old friend from law school for a drink one night, she learned about triathlon and instantly knew what her next challenge would be.
“It was the races that really got me – they were epic! Women jumping off of perfectly good boats, cycling hundreds of miles across states, running the Rockies,” Lopez says, “I was in absolute awe. I signed up for a Rev3 Olympic triathlon in 2018 and never looked back.”
Though her symptoms are much improved, they’re not eliminated entirely. MS is currently a disease without a cure, and Lopez, now 52, must take precautions to avoid flare-ups. Exercise has been found to increase strength and balance as well as decrease muscle spasticity related to MS, but it can also backfire. In training, Lopez is constantly walking a fine line between pushing her body and honoring it. Her biggest concern while training is managing core temperature. A nervous system afflicted by MS is like a lamp with a short; just like the light will flicker and go out as a damaged wire overheats, Lopez’s nerve damage roars when she gets too hot. To keep cool, she carries a hydration pack filled with ice and sticks to indoor training when the temperature is above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
She also requires more recovery time: “I can manage a 6-day training week for a few weeks, then I need to do a 4-5 day training week for a week or two,” explains Lopez. “So instead of the usual 3-to-1 week training/recovery cycle, my schedule is more of a 2-to-1 cycle. If I fail to really recover, my fatigue becomes unmanageable and I can’t do life, let alone train.” Her immune system is also suppressed, so recovery is a critical part of maintaining health.
Through trial and error, she’s found what works, and is currently training to step up from sprint and Olympic races to race her first half-iron distance triathlon. Down the line, she says maybe she’d like to try a full Ironman, but that’s not her ultimate objective.
“My goal is to just put one foot in front of the other. I want to be on the course under sunny skies with everyone else. I found my feet again and made peace with this new body, though it’s taken many, many years. But I’m still here. I’m still alive! How wonderful is that?”