Terry Wahls ignored the strange symptoms alerting her to something terribly wrong for a very long time. She called the stabbing nerve pain that would momentarily sear her face ‘zingers’—they shot out of the blue and, more often she noticed, during her 36-hour marathon shifts as a young medical intern.
Though the zingers grew more frequent and intense over the years—“like a 10,000-volt cattle prod sticking me in the face,” she says—and as new symptoms, such as visual dimming, appeared, Wahls dismissed them as insignificant annoyances. “I was too busy with my own patients to dedicate too much diagnostic thought to myself,” says Wahls, by then a specialist in internal medicine.
Eventually, though, in 2000, the symptoms demanded Wahls’ full attention. She’d run marathons and climbed mountains in Nepal, had a black belt in Taekwondo and had once taken a bronze medal in women’s full-contact free sparring, but at age 45, during a three-mile walk to the ice-cream shop, she found herself dragging her left leg behind her “like a sandbag” all the way home. “I was exhausted, nauseated and scared,” she recalls.
A battery of tests, including a spinal tap, confirmed Wahls’ worst fears: she had multiple sclerosis. MS is a serious progressive autoimmune disorder that attacks the central nervous system, causing a wide array of symptoms—from fatigue and bladder problems to paralysis and organ failure.
A 21st-century plague
The NHS does not count autoimmune diseases collectively, but MS alone affects 100,000 Britons and more than 2.5 million people globally. Taken together, autoimmune diseases are estimated to affect as many as one in five people globally, and they’re now the third leading cause of morbidity and mortality around the world…