RED OAK, Texas — Many people start their mornings easily or extend them by slamming the snooze button on their bedside clocks.
The same can’t be said for 32-year old Kevin Smith, a Red Oak High School alumnus, bodybuilder and motivational speaker, who begins his day with nearly 30 minutes of trying to slow time and force his mind and body onto the same page.
“I wouldn’t want my anyone ever to have to experience or live with this,” Smith said about his daily struggle with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), his hands clutching the metal fork until his knuckles turned white. “I wake up very slowly. It usually takes me 15-20 minutes to build up energy and get out of bed. Most people can just fly out of bed, but for me, it requires a great amount of focus. It’s like being an old man.”
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are two types of multiple sclerosis classifications: RRMS and primary-progressive MS (PPMS).
While PPMS patients suffer from a steady worsening of their neurologic functioning without any distinct relapses or periods of remission, those who deal with RRMS receive unpredictable inflammatory attacks caused by activated immune cells that cause small, localized areas of damage which produce the symptoms of MS.
Smith has lived with RRMS for 10 years — two confined to a wheelchair on Interferon Beta 1b, the medicine MS patients are most commonly prescribed — and he’s gone through the ringer of prescriptions, medications and supplemental treatments.
He’s also had to wave goodbye to college and a lifelong passion during the early years and the onset of his battle with MS.
“I had a 4.0 GPA when I went to Cedar Valley (College) when I was diagnosed with MS,” Smith said. “I went to Oklahoma State (University) for three years to become an art teacher but never graduated. I studied for an exam for three days, but when I sat down, it was all gone. I knew it was over. That was my last day of college. That 4.0 GPA went downhill.”
Even now, it’s nearly impossible for him to finish his degree because of the problems RRMS presents to his short term memory, he said.
“I can’t because my (short-term) memory goes so fast,” Smith continued. “My job is very routine — the same thing over and over — so it implants itself in my mind. When I look at books and try to absorb the knowledge, it won’t stick.”
A combination of fatigue, sickness, being on the edge of poverty and having no control over his life and a desire to enjoy whatever amount of time God was going to give made him turn from injections, IV’s and prescriptions to the old-fashioned magic of fitness, he said.
Smith, who separated from the Target corporation because of complications connected with his inability to work because of his disease, now works for Ennis’ JTEKT Automotive Texas, building rack-and-pinion steering for Honda.
He has been drug-free since 2010 and said his current employer has supported his fight against MS. JTEKT has even let Smith speak to the whole company and talk about what he’s done and had to go through.
“If I have pain in my legs, I usually go to the gym,” Smith said. “That’s how I started. I’d get on the stationary bike and watch people work out because I had no idea what I was doing. I learned within the first week that it was like the energizer bunny and I could recharge my batteries and buy a week with no pain."
A year earlier, things were much different for Smith, who found his life made exceedingly more difficult by his disease, loss of love and wages and mounting medical and financial bills. The fact he was running out of food was one thing, but the evaporation of his insurance and disconnection from his life-giving medication was another.
“In 2009, I was fully disabled, getting disability and living off $800 a month,” Smith said. “It was worse before. When I worked for Target, they cut me down to eight hours a week because of my disability. When you go down to eight hours, you lose your insurance. When you lose your insurance, you lose your medication. Then, you’re pretty much living off a $100 bucks.”
Smith, desperately trying to find a way to fill his prescriptions and stave off the devastating effects of MS, contacted both a television talk-show host and a former Texas governor in hopes that one or both could help him stay afloat in his financial and medical bind.
“I was trying to get help for food because once you pay $50 to your specialist when you have $100, $50 is all you have left. I contacted Rick Perry and the Texas Sate legislature pushed my application (for aid) through,” Smith said. “Montel Williams, who also lives with MS, has a pharmaceutical assistance program that helps people who can’t afford medication.”
What the store manager may have had difficulty understanding, was the horrible effect of MS drug prescriptions.
“In the beginning, it was Beta Interferon. It would put me on the ground, shivering cold in the middle of summer. It’s comparable to (contracting) Malaria,” Smith said. “Then, it was sitting in a recliner for two hours with an IV pumping steroids into you. I’d have painful, full-body spasms. When I went to the doctor, my brother and I watched him get on bing.com to see what medicine to give me next.”
Money and education weren’t the only casualties during the early years. His love life also took a significant hit.
“The picture of me in the wheelchair I have on my Facebook is one of the last days we were together. She was with me when I was diagnosed and couldn’t handle it,” Smith said about his former fiancee, who left him after learning about his diagnosis. “I don’t blame her, though. We don’t really speak, but I’ve forgiven her. That’s a lot of responsibility to take on as a 22-year old kid.”
Smith met his current fiancee Dixie Hale three years after losing his first fiancee, swearing off meds and shortly after deciding to become a bodybuilder in the hallowed walls of Waxahachie’s Lord’s Gym.
“She takes on a lot of weight,” Smith said. “How it could end up is a lot to take for one person. She’s seen some of the symptoms and accepts them. It’s hard to find someone who gets it, but she does. She’s the one who pushes me through the down days. In fact, she doesn’t let me have them. I’m proud to be blessed enough to have her around.”
Despite the upward trend in his life, fears like passing the disease to children and the ever-present regression from RRMS to PPMS effects still loom in the distance like a shadowy figure in the corner of a dark room.
And because the location of the damage of the disease is so variable, no two people have the same symptoms and diagnosis and treatment is difficult in cases of RRMS.
While PPMS patients are resigned to a quick, assured and steady decline in health, those with RRMS must live in a constant state of fear that their last day to live as a fully functioning person was yesterday.
Without treatment, proper exercise or diet, RRMS can quickly regress into PPMS.
That fear has not only driven Smith to appreciate his second chance; it’s motivated him to change his life and motivate thousands of others through social media.
Smith follows a strict diet that mirrors Dr. Terry Wahls,’ a medical doctor diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis in 2003 and reached remission by 2007 through natural, non-medical means.
No soda. No fried foods. No sweets. Smith's diet is every bit as strenuous, similar and dedicated as the fad-friendly “Paleo” diet.
“Anybody who has any drive and is backed up to a wall and everybody’s given up on them only has themselves to depend on,” he said. “The only person who’s going to get them out of that hole is themselves."
More than anything, his message is one of hope, determination and defiance. He wants anyone dealing MS or any other disease not to take no for an answer, Smith said.
“If I could tell anybody anything, it would be ‘Don’t limit yourself.’ When you limit yourself, you accept defeat,” he said. “The world is your playground, take it. I connect with people all over the world through Facebook. I’ve helped people in Egypt, India and Japan through Google translator. If I lost everything tomorrow, I’d be devastated, but I’d be grateful for the second chance I was given. Any of this — Dixie, bodybuilding and a second lease on life — could have not happened. I could have been stuck in the chair.”
Marcus is the sports editor for both the Waxahachie Daily light and Midlothian Mirror. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI. Contact the sports desk at 469-517-1456 and on Twitter by using #WDLsports and #MirrorSportsNB in tweets!