GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Anne Merz was 18 and just about to finish high school in 1975 when she suddenly started tripping over her own feet for no apparent reason.
“I knew something was wrong, but at the time multiple sclerosis was hard to diagnose, and there were no MRIs to confirm it,” said Merz, who relocated to the Glenwood Springs area last year with her husband, Kevin, partly because the dry climate helped with her now full-blown symptoms of MS.
Doctors initially gave her and her parents a vague diagnosis and advised her to take it easy and not rush off to college.
“I ignored that advice,” she said, instead pursuing her ambitions and enrolling at Wellesley College, a prestigious women’s school outside of Boston, and taking summer classes at Harvard.
“That first year was very tough,” Merz said of her early symptoms of MS, even though she didn’t know at the time that was the cause of her problems.
Her early symptoms eventually subsided, and Merz was able to live a rather normal, active life for the next 30 years, working, getting married and raising three children.
Then, in 2002, the symptoms returned with a vengeance as progressive MS set in, impacting her mobility and forcing her to use a walker cane or a scooter. An MRI taken at the time also officially confirmed her diagnosis.
After their youngest graduated high school and joined the military, Anne and Kevin Merz moved from Greenwich, Conn., to the Missouri Heights area between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, in search of the Colorado lifestyle and escape from the humid summer heat of the East Coast.
“We used to come up to Aspen to ski when I was a kid, and I just fell in love with it,” Anne Merz said.
Through WindWalkers equine therapy programs as well as getting back on the ski slopes thanks to Challenge Aspen, she has also been able to regain some of her movement.
Now, Merz is an advocate for others with MS, helping to organize today’s MS Walk and 5K Run, sponsored by the Colorado-Wyoming Chapter of the National MS Society at the No Name Rest Area in Glenwood Canyon.
Merz said she is also looking forward to participating in the event and meeting others in the area who have MS.
One of her hopes is to form a local MS support group.
“People want to pull together and be able to share their stories and just be there for each other,” she said. “Sometimes they are just afraid to ask for help, but it’s important to connect.
“MS doesn’t define people living with this disease, but it’s a common thread we have to deal with,” Merz said.
If she can point others to programs like WindWalkers that not only provide physical therapy but psychological and emotional support, that can be a huge help, she said.
If enough people organized and simply asked for things like yoga classes geared to people with MS at the area community recreation centers, that’s another benefit, Merz said.
“I’m at the point where I’m not going to let this bring me down, and I really want to do something worthwhile to help other people and let them know they have significance in the world,” she said.
Merz is also currently taking two of the 10 FDA-approved medications available today for people with MS, and is participating in some experimental efforts as well.
However, none of the drugs currently available are able to stop progressive MS, and the cause and cure for the disease remain unknown, according to Suzie Reel, community outreach coordinator for the MS Society’s Grand Junction-based chapter office.
“Research holds the key, which is why society fundraising events such as Walk MS are so important,” she said.
Nearly 300 area walkers and runners are expected to take part in today’s walk and 5K run, which aims to help raise $59,000 in support of area chapter programs and national research efforts.
“This is a very inspiring and uplifting event that brings our community together to support a great cause,” Reel said, noting that the Colorado-Wyoming chapter held 12 separate run/walk events in 2013 that raised more than $1.8 million.
MS afflicts more than 100,000 people in the two-state region, according to the MS Society.