Carrie Mattern had just struck out on her own when she started experiencing a number of seemingly unrelated health problems.
The Torino native, who now resides in St. Albert, moved to Calgary in 1999 to pursue a career in advertising. At 27, she was eager to meet someone and start her life.
That’s when her leg started going numb, her vision blurry and her energy low. She was tired all the time, fell into a deep depression, and would get the oddest sensation when she would bend over – a rush tingling up her spine.
Worried that she was “falling apart”, Mattern went to see a family doctor, who treated the depression first, since mental illness can often trigger physical symptoms.
Once her depression was under control, Mattern and her physician tackled her symptoms piece-by-piece – the vision loss, the fatigue, the numbness – but it wasn’t until she mentioned that odd tingling, almost as an afterthought, that she was able to get some answers.
“I felt like I was complaining all the time,” explained Mattern. “That rush of tingle up my back was sort of bottom of the list. It was an odd sensation, but I didn’t bring it up until we covered a whole bunch of other things.”
This seemingly innocuous feeling turned out to be the key to her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) – what is thought to be an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system.
MS affects Canadians more than any other population in the world. It’s estimated that 100,000 Canadians are living with the disease, which attacks myelin, the protective covering of the nerves that is necessary for the proper transmission of signals from the brain to other parts of the body.
While many symptoms of MS – balance/dizziness problems, fatigue, depression, gait, vision loss and sensory impairment (numbness and tingling) – are similar to those of other diseases, the tingling sensation described by Mattern is fairly unique to MS.
Lhermitte’s Sign, sometimes referred to as the barber’s chair phenomenon, is often described by patients as “an electrical sensation that runs down the back and into the limbs” and is often induced by the bending of the neck.
And so, fifteen years ago, feeling silly for not being able to bend down and tie her shoes, Mattern received some pretty life-changing news.
And change her life she did.
Once she knew what she was up against, she was able to better tackle the disease head on. She began treatments and made her life as stress-free as possible, by first quitting her job as an art director.
Recognizing that she could not keep up with the fast-paced nature of the advertising industry, Mattern started a home-based advertising design company, Meddhead Productions, which allowed her to have better control over her hours while still pursuing a career she loved.
The Art Institute of Seattle graduate’s work can be seen throughout the city during StArts Fest – Mattern created the logo.
“It was kind of like the diagnosis put everything into place. I was able to prioritize and I knew what was important to me and I knew I needed to spend time doing the things that were important to me,” said Mattern, who manages her disease through drugs, yoga, rest and diet.
Previously a very private, reserved person – worried about how she presented herself to the outside world – Mattern began living life for herself.
The St. Albert mom doesn’t know why she reacted the way she did.
“It was like this snap in me; this change. I think part of it was that I felt like MS was not a death sentence; I can survive, and thrive, with MS,” she said. “It could have been something different where I didn’t have very long to live. It was a slap in the face that life is short.”
Having a more flexible career also allowed her to raise the family she always dreamed of. Mattern and her husband, Jeff, have nine-year-old twins.
Although fatigue, her only persistent symptom, prevents her from spending as much time with Wyatt and Lily as she would like, Mattern said she leads a very fulfilling life, despite the disease.
Mattern, who suffers from relapsing remitting MS, characterized by unpredictable but clearly defined relapses, hasn’t had an attack for years, but says there are “absolutely reminders” when she pushes herself too hard physically.
Her body will start to feel “buzzy” after too long of a walk or late night; the lack of sensitivity in her right hand serves as a more permanent reminder of her disease.
But overall she feels fortunate. “I got on the treatment right away. I was diagnosed right away,” she said. “There was a lot that went in my favour.”
“The diagnosis isn’t something you would ever want for somebody,” she added, “but many good things have come out of the diagnosis for me.”