A private, nonprofit multiple sclerosis center tucked away in Green has won a national grant to pursue diet-based therapy for the insidious disease.
The $5,000 Nightingale Prize is a project of the International organization of nurses specializing in multiple sclerosis, designed to help disease nurses pursue innovative treatment approaches. It is funded by EMD Serono, the US healthcare arm of German pharmaceutical giant Merck, and went to nine recipients scattered across the United States.
Although the grant may seem relatively small, it is a big deal for the Oak Clinic for multiple sclerosis and its 1,800 patients in northeast Ohio and beyond, said practicing nurse Lauren Junk, who applied for the grant.
“It really helps,” Junk said in a recent clinic interview. “With the price, we are able to keep it at no cost to patients.”
Junk helped develop the Wellness Wednesday program as part of the clinic’s treatment regimen, which combines traditional medical approaches with dietary and exercise modifications.
The holistic perspective helps patients cope with an often unpredictable illness that can become debilitating.
The clinic was started in 2000 by Jim and Vanita Oelschlager, who wanted a place where patients with multiple sclerosis could find help battling the disease, regardless of their ability to pay.
Jim Oelschlager himself was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973, when the disease was little known and difficult to diagnose. Vanita Oelschlager has written a children’s book about multiple sclerosis, with proceeds going to the Oak Clinic.
“It’s probably the only clinic left in the United States that isn’t affiliated with a medical institution,” said Suzanne Arnold, the clinic’s director of development.
This independence helps the clinic stay focused on patients while conducting research and developing innovative treatments and coping strategies for multiple sclerosis, she said.
An unpredictable disease
Although multiple sclerosis has been known as a unique disorder for over 150 years, effective treatment is relatively recent. There is no remedy.
The development of magnetic resonance imaging in the late 1970s helped identify the unique damage caused by MS, supplanting spinal taps as the definitive test to diagnose the disease.
Pharmaceutical treatments have also developed slowly, but several are now available with others in development.
It’s a disease that affects about one million Americans, and the number of people with MS is on the rise. A 2019 study estimated that about 363 out of 100,000 Americans have multiple sclerosis, up from 309 out of 100,000 in 2010.
At Oak Clinic, approximately 350-400 patients receive monthly injections to help relieve symptoms, which can include blurred and double vision, numbness in the legs, spasms, fatigue, depression, incontinence issues , sexual dysfunction and difficulty walking.
In its advanced stages, it can lead to an inability to speak, write or walk, and some patients may need specialist care to meet their needs. It is fatal only in extremely rare cases.
“No one could understand what was going on”
At Oak Clinic, Junk said, patients are encouraged to modify their diet and exercise routines to help alleviate some symptoms of the disease.
The Wellness Wednesday program may not seem revolutionary, but it has had a profound effect on some patients.
Salem resident Elaine Reiter, a patient at the Oak Clinic for several years, said the changes introduced by clinical dietitian Chelsey Jackson have been beneficial.
“I had MS before MRIs came along,” she said. “No one could understand what was going on. The doctors did not believe [me].”
Reiter said she had the opportunity to travel abroad but was worried about her stamina for the trip.
“I was lucky enough to go to Romania,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen when I got there.”
To prepare, she lost 20 pounds, avoided processed foods and sugars, and exercised.
“I always thought there was a connection to food,” she said. “[I] stay away from processed foods. Sugar is the worst thing for us.
The changes helped Reiter increase her mobility and reduce her fatigue for travel, she said.
“I don’t eat fast food anymore,” she said. “…All kinds of foods cause inflammation.”
Junk said research seems to point to a link between MS and vitamin D deficiencies and sun exposure, as well as exposure to toxins. About two-thirds of multiple sclerosis patients are women, and many with multiple sclerosis symptoms do not receive enough attention to diagnose their condition.
“A lot of patients just get carried away by the symptoms,” she said. “New patients here get a two-hour visit.”
Jackson said making better food choices — healthy plant-based foods and avoiding processed foods — helps many people with MS.
Jackson recently challenged patients to a 10-day sugar detox.
“It was amazing to hear stories about how people felt better,” she said.
Leave a message for Alan Ashworth at 330-996-3859 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconj.