Imagine being a healthy, active dad of three young children — and suddenly, you can’t even walk, much less play with your kids or exercise.
That’s what happened to Don Nurkala, who serves on the board of the Carls Family YMCA in Milford. He’d always been active and was on a hockey team which played Friday nights. One night in January 2010, he took a slap shot off the foot, but didn’t think anything of it. The next morning he woke up and his right hand was essentially unusable. “I could move it but I didn’t have a lot of strength,” he says. “It just felt weird — I’ve always played sports and have done everything I could think of to my body, and I’d never felt that before.”
Soon, his calf cramped up –”on a pain scale of 1-10 it was a nine,” he says — and by the next day the pain had moved over to his left leg and he could hardly walk at all.
He had a couple of important meetings the next day, and so he got through those and then went to see his primary care doctor. His doctor was concerned enough that he called a neurologist friend and had Don seen right away. The neurologist sent him to the hospital immediately, where a battery of tests found a spot on his neck that possibly indicated a rare virus.
Still struggling, he did everything his doctors asked but wasn’t feeling any better. It was a difficult time for him and for his family — he couldn’t care for his kids or do household chores, and this was someone for whom a 10-mile run was part of his easy routine just days before this illness struck. “The neighbors thought I was crazy because I would sit on the driveway and try to throw a ball to the kids, and I could barely do that,” he says. “The strength that I lost was such that I didn’t have the strength to cut my own fingernails or to push down on a soap pump. Doing little things fatigued me like crazy.”
The Y provided his family comfort, fun and a sense of community, he says. Not only were people simply showing concern for his health, but his trainer was giving him stretching advice to keep his limbs as loose as possible, and his children were in swimming lessons, soccer and basketball, getting the exercise and play Don wished he could help with. His wife ended up taking on almost all the child care and household responsibilities because his illness was leaving him so weak and fatigued, and ChildWatch allowed her to work out and have a little time to herself while knowing her kids were in a safe, caring environment. “It was huge blessing to know they were there for all that,” he said.
Finally, after several months of this his doctor decided to do an MRI of his spine, which revealed several lesions. Don has multiple sclerosis. It’s the relapsing-remitting kind, which means he’s essentially guaranteed it will relapse, it’s just a matter of how long that might take. It could be a few years, it could be a decade — but Don intends to meet it head on.
“I have to do as much as I possibly can now so when the relapse does come again, I have that much easier of a time recovering from it,” he says.
To that end he’s in the Triathlon Club at the Y and recently completed a half-mile swim. His plan is to complete a half-Ironman Triathlon this year and a full Ironman next year. “I hope I can inspire my kids to do things, and anyone else at the Y who might have MS can see me and know it’s not the end,” he says.