With no idea where to turn after hearing a life-changing diagnosis, local runner Heather Jeff decided to take control and make multiple sclerosis work on her terms. And after 15 years managing the condition alongside thousands of miles, the Falls Church resident shared her experience in a documentary — filmed with the help of Arlington high school students — “Living, With MS.”
Jeff is a bright-eyed, bubbly, spirited woman whose openness about MS has made the project possible. For her, running has been an incredible help to her in carrying what might otherwise be a heavy load of symptoms and challenges. Through her upbeat perspective, this possibly-dark story of disease has been turned to a hopeful, honest and even therapeutic story.
“I just wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I couldn’t really trust my body,” Jeff said about the diagnosis. “I remember saying to my doctor, should I start doing yoga? Is that the answer? Will that help this? And she was like, sure, you can do yoga, yoga is great for everybody but keep doing what you do.”
In short, there was no magic in learning to live with MS and her doctor was as interested in helping Jeff to not allow her life to be defined an autoimmune disorder that affects the central nervous system, but whatever Jeff was comfortable doing from a health and fitness perspective would be helpful. No one knew at that time just how helpful this advice would be.
Her neurologist, Heidi Crayton, diagnosed MS after Jeff had several episodes of blindness in each of her eyes. Tests revealed areas of demyelination on her brain, a classic MS symptom.
Jeff had begun running recreationally in college to combat the “freshman fifteen,” but she loved the way it made her feel and she quickly started to realize that weight control was only one of the small perks that running had to offer. She loved the way she felt when she ran and by the time of her diagnosis years later, running was simply part of her routine.
“I feel like this [advice] allowed me to be like, what can go wrong? It’s already gone wrong so I may as well just keep running,” she said.
So after talking with Crayton, Jeff dove in deeper, and started running harder and longer with renewed focus.
“I started running a lot more seriously and a lot further and with a lot more purpose,” she said. “At first, it was determination then when I got over that; it was joy.”
Jeff quickly went from 5k to the marathon, though she admits she did that a little too quickly. She has finished six marathons and continually reaps the benefits that running has to offer not just generally, but in managing the symptoms of her MS.
Going in for a routine checkup about a year ago, Jeff felt great. Crayton was delighted that Jeff remained so healthy and even commented on her success.
“I remember her looking at me and saying, ‘I don’t understand how you do this; how you’re the same every year. Nothing changes,’” Jeff said.
They shared that encouragement and they both could put their fingers on its cause — Jeff’s running. Crayton told her that treating patients with MS often has tough moments in helping newly diagnosed patients face their futures.
“She said the toughest part of her job is not so much telling someone they have MS because by the time patients reach her (the diagnosis is) obviously on the table, but it’s having something positive to share, like a message of hope to show that once you hear those words, it’s not the end,” Jeff said. “And that just resonated with me.”
That conversation sparked her imagination. If running meant a stable life, free of fear of her condition, it represented a future that MS patients could look to in the dark confusion that comes after hearing a diagnosis.
“People don’t share the happy stuff, people don’t share the stories,” Jeff said. “I don’t think that’s been picked up by the MS world; the uplifting part. So I thought about it, ran, thought about it and talked about it with my running friends and spent a lot of time thinking, how can I make a difference? That to me felt like a call to action. That to me was very clear. There needs to be something out there that’s different.”
At the time, Jeff had had a blog for about a year (http://findyourinnerpace.com) and thought first of using this channel to spread her message of running to help manage the symptoms and stress of living with MS. But after a bit of advice from a friend, she shifted gears toward creating a video to reach even more people.
So after much research, and with a lot of help from friends, old and new, the documentary, “Living, with MS,” began to take form. Instantly, she was connected through word-of-mouth in the running community to other athletes with MS and people who could help her produce the film, students from H.B Woodlawn High School. Her original vision slowly took shape until it finally became a touching and inspirational 23-minute film that debuted this past weekend at the Arlington Draft House.
The documentary features Jeff, Theresa Urban, Kate Morse, Crayton, and former Georgetown basketball player Chris Wright. Each person relates small parts of their journeys with MS while Crayton explains her medical perspective on the condition, emphasizing that she wants her patients to think of the diagnosis as second, not first, when asked what they should change or do differently. In a word, Crayton says, “nothing.”
The women, Urban, Morse and Jeff, showcase how running and athletics has helped each of them combat their diagnoses, both physically and mentally. Images of the women cycling and running through Haynes Point, as well as doing squats and overhead presses with dumbbells panned across the screen inspiring the more than 300 people who showed up for the documentary’s premiere.
Their message of hope rippled through the audience as they answered questions from the audience after the film was shown. There was a palpable thread of camaraderie that connected them all. Their synonymous take away message? Find your tribe, regardless of a diagnosis of MS or a completely healthy body. Lean on your training teams, your family, your friends, and find the people that can support you through your journey and live each day to the fullest.