After her diagnosis at 24, Hiba learns that multiple sclerosis doesn’t have to interfere with living a full life.

News, Your Health | 2 years ago

Living Symptom-free with Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

After her diagnosis at 24, Hiba learns that multiple sclerosis doesn’t have to interfere with living a full life.

At first, Hiba Brinager became tired. Unusually tired. Then, her right hand weakened so much that she had trouble typing. Then, she couldn’t write or use her computer mouse.

At just 24 years old, Hiba didn’t realize that these were common early symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS). She hoped these were temporary ailments, so a couple days later she went on a vacation with her girlfriends. When she looked at the pictures they were taking, however, she noticed that she only smiled on the left side of her face.

She returned home to Mooresville and turned to Donna Graves, MD, the medical director of neurology at Atrium Health. That’s when Hiba learned she had MS.

“I was definitely scared and shocked, but looking back on things that happened previously, it made sense. I’ve been having little attacks that I didn’t know were MS because they always got better and always resolved,” Hiba says. “I didn’t investigate what they were.”

At Atrium Health Neurosciences Institute, Hiba worked with an experienced team of multidisciplinary experts who collaborate closely. Atrium Health’s multiple sclerosis program is the only MS program in the Charlotte area recognized by the National MS Society for its comprehensive approach.

After her diagnosis at 24, Hiba learns that multiple sclerosis doesn’t have to interfere with living a full life.

It’s more than about treating MS; it’s about caring for the person who has it.

“My goal is to try to minimize the impact of this disease on patients’ lives, and that’s about more than finding an effective therapy for them – it’s about finding a therapy that fits their lifestyle and managing all the related symptoms of MS,” says Dr. Graves, who specializes in MS. “I really strive so that patients don’t have to alter their life plans because of MS. While that’s not always possible, that’s always the goal for me.”

Within days of Hiba developing weakness in her right hand, that weakness spread to her entire right side. Within two months of starting treatment, however, she had no remaining symptoms.

“I put my trust in Dr. Graves and my family and my friends, and they took care of me,” Hiba says. “I got 100% better. Currently, I have no symptoms, but I do take medication that keeps the symptoms away. My MS is under really great control right now.”

A Typical Start to an Atypical Disease

Hiba’s initial symptoms are typical for MS: weakness, tingling and numbness. Other than those, however, there isn’t much about MS that is typical. It’s a disease that can affect the spinal cord and brain. Some people with MS will develop mobility problems that interfere with their daily routine while other people may not appear to have MS at all. Because of recent advancements in therapies, more people with MS can manage their symptoms better than ever – even when those symptoms don’t look much like MS.

“Because MS is an autoimmune disorder, that means several systems of the body are involved. After a patient gets a diagnosis, they’ll need a lot of support with their symptoms, which can require other subspecialities associated with MS,” says Dalia AbouZeki, MD, the medical director of the MS program at Atrium Health.

That’s why cross-specialty collaboration for such an unpredictable disease is crucial. People who have MS may deal with vision impairment, gastrointestinal issues, urological disorders and more. Atrium Health’s MS program includes ophthalmologists, gastroenterologists, neuro-urologists, psychiatrists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and a nursing staff – all of whom know and understand MS. For patients who need assistance coordinating their care, an MS nurse navigator offers help. The program’s reputation as a leader in MS care leads people from around the area to travel for treatment here.

Convenient and Comprehensive Care for Patients

MS care at Atrium Health strives to ease the burden on patients. MS providers act almost like primary care providers: Patients come to them with any kind of symptom that stems from their MS, and the provider can refer them to the specialist who can help. The providers talk with patients to learn about their routines and life goals, and they create a treatment plan that takes those into consideration.

 “We’re very patient-oriented. At Atrium Health’s MS center, our focus is always the patient’s experience and how MS and its treatments affect the whole body and their whole life,” says Dr. Graves. “It is our comprehensive care team that really sets us apart from other MS centers.”

A few years after her diagnosis, Hiba told Dr. Graves she and her husband wanted to start a family. Dr. Graves shifted Hiba to an MS medication that would allow her to plan for future pregnancies without worrying about her MS, and she coordinated with Hiba’s OB/GYN throughout her pregnancy. Hiba said that her OB/GYN kept an eye on the baby, while Dr. Graves kept her eye on Hiba.

Hiba had a baby boy. And a couple years later, still coordinating her care with Dr. Graves, Hiba had another baby boy. Hiba remains symptom free while being a mom to two sons.

“Dr. Graves has been tremendous,” Hiba says. “It’s amazed me from the first day I met her how knowledgeable she is about MS and all the different treatments there are for it. She listened to me and understood what symptoms I was having and what my long-term goals were for family planning. I trust that she knows what’s best.”

In addition to helping individuals manage MS, Atrium Health’s program also pushes the field forward. The team hosts MS clinical trials that connect patients to cutting-edge therapies, and it conducts research into improving the efficacy of treatments. Dr. AbouZeki studies how artificial intelligence can be used to improve MS treatment plans, as well as how to identify and lower barriers to care. Atrium Health even collects samples for a bio-repository that will allow them to study the connections between immune profiles and the best treatment response in a continued drive toward personalized medicine.

Bright Outlook

MS care has advanced drastically over the past decade, with more patients able to manage their condition with fewer symptoms.

Since her diagnosis, Hiba’s continued to live a full life. She’s continued her work as a researcher, gotten married and had two sons. She’s travelled to Singapore and Italy and Spain. She loves yoga and works out at least five times a week. The past seven years have given her an unwanted crash course in MS, but she wants to share some of what she’s learned with others who may have a more recent diagnosis.

“If you have MS, don’t get so scared or feel your life is over. A lot of people think MS is like a death diagnosis, which it is not. There are some amazing medications out there now that can help you get MS under control,” Hiba says.

Learn more about the multiple sclerosis (MS) program at Atrium Health.