To People With Multiple Sclerosis Facing a ‘I Can’t Do the Job’ Moment


Bryan Bickell, a professional hockey player, recently announced he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). As I read about his diagnosis, I had a flashback. Not to my days of playing hockey — I barely know how to skate — but to “The West Wing,” a political TV drama that I watched not long after I was diagnosed with MS.

I never watched the show during its original airing, but after learning its lead character, Jed Bartlett, a fictional president played by Martin Sheen, had multiple sclerosis — well, I had to check it out. The concept was too much for me to resist. If the president of the United States could still succeed while living with MS, then why not me?

The show, however, doesn’t revolve around President Bartlett’s MS. It makes appearances in random story arcs — and some of them can be kind of silly — but there is one poignant scene that has always stuck with me, and I thought about again after I first read about Bickell’s diagnosis.

In the ninth episode of Season 6, President Bartlett’s MS is flaring up while at a summit in China. At one point, after he falls in the bathroom and can’t move his legs, he looks at Abigail, his wife, and says, “I can’t do the job, Abby!”

I know it was fictionalized — and if you don’t have MS, perhaps you’d consider the scene a bit cheesy — but it spoke loudly to me.

At the time, I was still holding on to the hopes of my own career. 

I was fortunate to be working a corporate job when diagnosed and blessed to be at a company that allowed me to work from home on a regular basis. They were very accommodating towards my disease, but the pace and rigor that my job required was still too much.

Blurred vision often inhibited me from reviewing presentations. Vertigo haunted me while at the office — it was brutal to try and look at more than one person while in a meeting or even when somebody said hello while passing in the hall. On more than one occasion, I had to disappear to the bathroom and throw up, an unfortunate gift of the dizziness. 

And there was pain. Bolts of lightning randomly shot through my body, and there were constant aches in my legs.

Fatigue was like a dark cloud, following me wherever I went, sapping my energy and ability to think clearly.

I can’t do the job, Abby!

To aid my vision, I wore an eye patch — always at home and sometimes at the office — when no one was around and I knew I couldn’t be seen. I regularly took medicine to try and help with the queasiness from my vertigo, and I did my best to hide any pain that I was in. Smiling, I learned, is wonderful camouflage.   

I fell down stairs. Heck, I even fell up the stairs at work. I regularly had to miss time for doctor’s appointments and endure treatments that wiped out my energy and gave me flu-like side effects.

I can’t do the job, Abby!

Eventually, though, the toll became too much on my body. At one point, I was unable to walk with a normal gait from a relapse I had called foot drop, my vision was getting worse and I started to feel like I spent more time at the doctor’s office than I did working.

The first time I heard the line, “I can’t do the job, Abby!” tears formed in my eyes but not from sadness. Rather, it was because I knew President Bartlett wasn’t admitting defeat. He was merely admitting he was human. 

And guess what — it was OK. 

I was going to be OK. 

I don’t have to be a superhero 24 hours a day. I can admit that, guess what, sometimes “I can’t do the job.”

That doesn’t make me less of a person — it makes me a real person.

I left the professional workforce and haven’t looked back. My days are filled with new adventures: spending more time with my family, writing, baking, doing jigsaw puzzles and taking moments out of each day to pause and appreciate all that I’m blessed with. None of that would have been possible if I was still working, continuing my charade of smoke and mirrors to look the part, while my health became progressively worse.

In a phone interview with The Chicago Tribune, Bickell spoke about his hopes of continuing to play hockey and his fear of not knowing what the future might hold and how playing hockey may not be part of it.

I imagine him lacing up his skates, trying to be the same kind of player that got him to the professional level, and I hope that moment of exasperation never comes — when he says, “I can’t do the job!”

To any person, athlete or not, who is diagnosed with MS — if that moment does come — it’s OK. It’s going to be OK. A new path will appear. Although it might be on a road less traveled, the sun will still rise and silver linings will emerge.

Most importantly, be open to the possibilities of transforming into new person. You might be pleasantly surprised with who you become.

Follow this journey on A Life Less Traveled.

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Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images


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