At mile 49, physically weary from two and a half days of walking in 90-degree weather, Abby Wilmer stopped and gathered with the others to honor their purpose. 231 walkers, their families and the many volunteers of the Challenge Walk MS had all come together to raise awareness and money for medical research and support programs for people living with multiple sclerosis.
The gathering was emotional, and near the end, Abby and her team “Bee the Change” – named for her family beekeeping business and a forward-looking hope for the future of MS treatment – were invited to the front. Abby’s story of being diagnosed and living with MS was shared, and then she, along with her mom Stacy Wilmer and college friend Celene Leiva, were invited to lead the last stretch of the 50-mile walk.
“I was overcome with emotion and a surge of adrenaline,” Abby said. “I walked toward the finish line with more energy than I had felt in the previous 49 miles. Completing that last mile was such an honor and filled me with hope for the future of MS.”
A 2013 graduate of Warroad High School, Abby has been living with MS for two years. Into her sophomore year at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo California, she began noticing blurry vision and that different colors were appearing dull. “Suddenly I couldn’t see what my professors were writing on the board or make out the letters of a stop sign,” Abby said. “I went to the optometrist expecting I would need glasses.”
But it was much more serious than just her vision. Three months and a slew of tests later, she was officially diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. MS is a complex disease; there is no known cause or cure, and according to the National MS Society, it is an “unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.”
Symptoms range from mild to severe, such as vision problems, fatigue, muscle weakness, numbness, vertigo, speech problems, tremors, seizures, breathing problems, and many more. There are treatments to help manage the progression of the disease, but how fast it will move and how it presents itself in any one person is completely unpredictable. The worst part? The disease itself is often invisible. “Most of the time multiple sclerosis is a hidden disease,” Abby explained. “This isn’t just specific to MS but is very common with many chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and Lyme disease.”
With all of this newfound information washing over her like the unrelenting waves at the San Luis Obispo beaches, Abby would have to quickly learn a new way of life. Now she needed to balance the emotional rigors of her new diagnosis and ongoing medical appointments with being a full-time student committed to maintaining a strong academic record. Her studies were vitally important to her as she worked toward an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and prepared to enter medical school. To this day, she also takes an injection, which has flu-like side effects, every two weeks in hopes of slowing the disease’s progression.
Her diagnosis and her disease management haven’t slowed her down. The recent 50-mile MS walk marked both a finale and a beginning for Abby. She’s no long just living with MS, she’s now an advocate for MS awareness and fundraising. Abby points to growing up in an altruistic town like Warroad as her encouragement to seek these advocate opportunities, as well as a career where she could give back to her community.
“We live in an under-served area which lacks adequate resources and prevents many people from seeking the medical care they need and limits their education about disease prevention,” Abby said. “There are many chronic health conditions that may otherwise be prevented, so I feel a responsibility to make public health education more accessible.
“One of my main goals as a future physician is to provide a patient-centered holistic approach, focusing especially on mental and emotional health because I not only want to heal patients, but enrich their daily living and provide support for their families,” she added.
She’s off to good start. Abby recently received Cal Poly’s College of Science and Mathematics’ Senior Recognition Award for Exceptional Academic Achievement. “To me, this award not only represented my academics,” she said, “but also everything I overcame throughout my four years at Cal Poly. I learned how to manage my stress levels and my overall emotional well-being after my diagnosis, and now I know I can harness these new skills to help me combat the rigors of medical school and physician burnout.”
Abby completed her bachelor’s degree this past spring and is now back home in Warroad for the next year working at Security State Bank and helping with the family business – Wilmer Honey Farms. She’s also getting her fill of some of her hometown passions: walleye fishing and deer hunting in both the archery and rifle seasons. Next fall, she’ll get back to her schooling and will undoubtedly be very busy; she was recently accepted into the 2018 program at the University of Minnesota Medical School in the Twin Cities.
She’s using her year-off wisely, including the recent Challenge MS Walk, which took place in Green Lake, Wisconsin. “Ever since I was diagnosed, I have wanted to be a promoter for multiple sclerosis awareness,” Abby said. “I found that many people, including myself, had misconceptions of this disease, so I wanted to use the Challenge Walk as a platform to educate family, friends, and others within the community.”
When asked what she wanted people in our rural area to know about MS and how they might help, Abby stressed the uniqueness of the disease and how it affects each individual differently. She also mentioned many existing MS events and the National MS Society, which is the largest private funder for MS research in the world. “Any research of multiple sclerosis is beneficial and can advance the research of other diseases such as ALS and Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.
Once she’s finished medical school and her residency training, we might just encounter Abby and her determined personality up this way again. “I would love to move back to this area to practice rural medicine,” she said. “I also really want to get our youth interested in the sciences such as chemistry, microbiology, and physics. The future of medicine is exciting and I am extremely thrilled to be a part of it!”
Like it or not, Abby Wilmer has a duplicitous front row seat to that future, but this is one young woman who won’t tackle those challenges sitting down. She’ll be walking that last mile towards disease prevention and curative medicine as determined as ever to make a difference for those who need it most.
Well done, Abby.
(Published in the Nov 7 issue of the Warroad Pioneer)