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Ruvo program treats MS patients

The first sign that something was wrong, Candace Infante realizes now, came about six years ago when she was out with friends and her left side started “feeling tingly all over.”

But when the strange sensation soon went away, she thought nothing of it.

After all, she was just 19, someone who could run up and down the court for hours playing basketball, a game she had loved since a little girl and one she had excelled at enough to play on her California high school varsity squad.

“Basically, I thought I was in good shape then,” she said the other day as she used a cane to help keep her balance as she walked outside the Henderson condominium she shares with her mother. “That tingling didn’t seem like a big thing at all.”

It also didn’t seem like a big thing a year later when, a few weeks after a car accident, her left leg didn’t function well.

“I wasn’t really hurt in the accident and the X-rays I got didn’t show anything, so I figured I was just stiff.”

Again, the sensation quickly went away and she found herself moving smoothly … until a few months later when she went to a concert with some friends.

“I had a hard time walking,” she said. “I felt like I was dragging my left leg.”

A trip to her primary care doctor resulted in more X-rays that found nothing.

Once again the symptoms with her left leg went away … until she went to a theme park with friends and she felt that she had to drag her leg. That feeling continued as she tried to work as a waitress.

Trips to a primary care doctor and a podiatrist ended up with her referred to a neurologist.

Tests, including a brain scan she underwent just before her 21st birthday, showed she had multiple sclerosis or MS, an often debilitating disease for about 400,000 people in the United States.

Her body’s immune system was eating away at the protective sheath covering her nerves, a process interfering with the communication between her brain and her body. Early symptoms of the disease include numbness, tingling, weakness in the arms or legs, blurred vision and loss of coordination. People with severe cases can lose the ability to talk and walk.

“I really hadn’t heard of the disease back then,” said Infante, who’s now 25.

That lack of awareness of MS is something Dr. Timothy West, director of the MS program at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, wants to change. Although there is no cure for MS, there are therapies that frequently reduce the number of flare-ups and ease symptoms and disability.

“If we can get someone diagnosed when symptoms first appear, there’s a good chance with the medications we have today that we can stop people from getting hit hard, get them stabilized,” said West, who is now Infante’s physician. “When my mother was diagnosed in the ’70s, there were no medications to help patients. Now we have 10.”

The damage done by the disease left West’s mother unable to walk or care for herself. Medical bills forced the sale of the family home. Only because West’s father has devoted himself to his wife’s care is she not in a nursing home.

What happened to his mother is the reason West has devoted himself to MS research and to helping those who have it.

His work with MS since he began at the Ruvo Center in 2011 recently led to the program being honored as a “Partner in MS Care” by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The honor recognizes clinicians who give quality MS care in the areas of neurology, mental health and rehabilitation as well as providing a multidisciplinary approach to comprehensive care.

Deborah Hertz, the society’s associate vice president for clinical care, noted that the Ruvo Center is the only site in Nevada to be recognized by her organization for quality MS care. The program also is participating in international drug trials.

“Nevada had been terribly under-served in this area,” Hertz said.

In 2013 the Ruvo Center, its services for MS strained by a heavy patient load, expanded its staff, resulting in fewer patients ending up in emergency rooms for expensive care. Physician/researcher Dr. Le Hua and social worker Joanne Fairchild (50 percent of MS patients suffer from depression) joined West.

Until he got that help, West, whose youngest patient is 2 and his oldest 74, had booked appointments for patients up to four months in advance and couldn’t immediately see patients for the unpredictable flare-ups associated with MS. Many of those patients had to be sent to emergency rooms where doctors managed symptoms with medications.

Infante, who moved to Las Vegas three years ago, is a true believer in what West has done at the Ruvo Center.

“When I was in California, they put me on two drugs there that didn’t work,” said Infante, whose condition quickly worsened to the point where a wheelchair often became necessary. “Fortunately, Dr. West got me on something that has stabilized my condition. And I’m on an anti-depressant to help me stay positive.”

She’s happy West is reaching out to the Hispanic community about MS, working with the Latin Chamber of Commerce and other groups to raise awareness about a disease that West says often hits the ethnic group “with greater severity.”

“He’s right,” she said. “I’m Hispanic and nobody I knew had heard of the disease.”

Now on disability, Infante studies at the College of Southern Nevada, hoping to work one day in criminal justice.

With MS also causing her to have bladder problems, she acknowledges that she doesn’t like “being tied down by the disease” and that she worries whether her disease will prevent her from getting married.

“I know I’m pretty but it’s not easy meeting people when you have this condition,” she said. “I’m praying Dr. West can find ways to keep me from getting worse. I don’t think I could take being in a wheelchair all the time.”

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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