The year was 2005 and Sally Franz, an accomplished skier at 54, was leading a church youth group down a slope at Mammoth Mountain Resort in California.
"I was in great shape and I felt like a kid myself," she says. "I was doing double black diamonds and loving every minute of it. Then out of nowhere, I felt a strange tingling in one foot."
Almost immediately, her leg went numb and the tingling started in the other foot. "I assumed I had a pinched nerve," she says. "But I knew I had to get to the lodge somehow." With the skill and presence of mind of a veteran of the slopes, she "snowploughed" her way down -- a ski term for the most basic maneuver. At the bottom, her legs gave way under her but the staff simply assumed she had hypothermia and offered her some hot chocolate. By then, though, she realized something was seriously wrong. She begged someone to get her an ambulance. "I remember thinking 'I don't want to die here,' " she says.
Eventually, she was airlifted to her hometown of Santa Barbara, which happens to have some of the best neurologists in the world. The diagnosis of transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord that destroys the protective sheath, was devastating. The disease causes paralysis and excruciating pain. According to the NIH, approximately 33,000 Americans have transverse myelitis. Causes can include viral infections, Lyme disease, abnormal reactions to some vaccinations, fibromyalgia, and complications of multiple sclerosis. Yet as in Sally's case, most incidences of TM are "idiopathic," meaning there is no known cause. The disease just strikes like the proverbial bolt out of the blue.
Sally's journey from a hospital bed where she was flat on her back, unable to move her legs or control her bladder and bowels, to a new life of purpose is a lesson in courage and faith. Water therapy and other types of rehabilitation got her up out of a wheelchair. In the miraculously short time of three weeks, she learned to walk again with a cane and she soon regained control of her bladder and bowels, which many TM victims do not. A full year after the attack, she could walk on her own most of the time, although she still needs her cane when temperatures are extreme. She also uses a wheelchair at airports. "That's humiliating," she admits. "I'm a 61-year-old in an 81-year-old body. But I'm grateful for the gains I've made and I feel huge waves of peace and serenity."
However, Sally was never able to return to her dual career as a motivational speaker and Lutheran Youth Minister. She is on full disability. "At first I moved in with my sister in North Carolina," she says. "She supported me, brought me coffee, and gave me a bedroom, an office, and a garden to putter in while I was writing my book about becoming paralyzed and thrown into the hospital system."
Sally also attended a workshop led by self-help guru Anthony Robbins. "He suggested one question that changed my life," she says. "It was, 'Given what you have left, what can you now do that you couldn't do before?' I had painted as a young woman and I suddenly knew I needed to pick up my brushes again."
Not long after that, Sally moved to Portland to help her older daughter with her newborn son. Since then, Sally has been accepted into a juried Art Show and she has sold all 19 of the paintings that she presented.
Sally still takes medication and she lives with the knowledge that the damage done to her spinal cord cannot be repaired. Another attack could come without warning, but she doesn't dwell on that. "I met a woman who had learned to walk again and ended up back in a wheelchair twice." Sally says. "Each time, she got up again. I vowed I would do that, too."
In her quest to reach out to others with TM, Sally has started a Facebook page for women who have the disease. "The requirement is that you have to have a sense of humor to participate," she says. "We laugh and keep each other going."
Sally also has her faith. "People will ask if I think God has left me," she says. "I say, no, he just got my attention. I didn't ask to be the poster child for this disease but I'm doing what I can to help others live as well as possible with it."
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Sally Franz is a former stand-up comedian, motivational speaker, and radio host. She is a twice-divorced mother of two and a grandmother of three. Sally has a degree in gerontology and several awards for humor writing. She is the author of "Scrambled Leggs: A Snarky Tale of Hospital Hooey," and "The Baby Boomers Guide to Menopause."