Moving mountains

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First came the fatigue. Then the vision loss. Then her right leg and arm went numb.

Whatever was happening to her body, April Winckler didn’t want to think about it.

“I [was] in denial,” she recalls. “I’m thinking, whatever it is, it’ll go away.”

But it didn’t. The symptoms began in December 2009, and only got worse. Winckler, a custodian at a high school in Davenport, Iowa, kept going to work. But she felt drained. Soon she could no longer rollerblade or teach tennis lessons.

An MRI revealed seven to nine lesions on her brain. A neurologist told Winckler she might have multiple sclerosis, which can cause parts of the body to go numb or become paralyzed and has no cure. More tests confirmed the diagnosis: Winckler had MS, and may have had it since she was 16 or 17.

Winckler, who was 25 at the time, was devastated. Before MS, she says, “I could run all day from the moment I got up to the moment I went to bed. I was go, go, go.”

MS is a neurodegenerative autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. The disease is caused by damage to the myelin sheath, a sort of electrical tape that insulates and protects the nerve tissue in the brain and spinal cord. Damage to the myelin sheath causes nerve impulses to slow or stop. MS symptoms vary, but often include numbness, pain, tingling, and loss of vision, balance and coordination.

Women are two to three times more likely than men to be diagnosed with MS, according to Mary Hartwig, the National MS Society’s director of development and marketing communications for the Wisconsin area. Most people are diagnosed between 20 and 50, Hartwig says.

After learning she had MS, Winckler, now 26, tried to stay active. But she works only four hours a day, after relapsing and ending up in the hospital from working too much.

Lori at the top of Mount Aconcagua in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2000.

“I can’t do as much as I want to,” she says. “My mind wants to. My body doesn’t.”

Several months after her diagnosis, Winckler’s mother showed her a flyer for a fundraiser for the Davenport Schools Foundation. On the announcement was a photo of a woman named Lori Schneider, standing atop Mount Everest.

Schneider, who is now 54, was diagnosed with MS in 1999.

“I was thinking to myself, well, she must be different than me because I sure as heck am not climbing a mountain,” Winckler says. “I’m very happy for her, but I’m looking at my mom like, you’re not expecting me to do anything, are you?”

Schneider’s mountaineering resume is impressive. She climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 1993, and, six years later, began training to climb Aconcagua. After being diagnosed with MS, Schneider, who lives in Bayfield, Wis., decided she would climb the seven highest peaks on each continent, known as the seven summits. She became the first person with MS to do so in May 2009.

“Here was hope,” Winckler says, recalling her mother’s excitement about Schneider. “This lady has this and she’s living her life and she climbed all these mountains, and maybe you’ll be OK.”

Her mother bought tickets to the event, and Winckler met Schneider in April 2010. The two women hit it off. Schneider gave Winckler her card, telling her to keep in touch.

Winckler did so, e-mailing Schneider to ask questions about symptoms and treatments, or just to vent. Schneider always replied, offering Winckler advice and support. Then, one day last July, Winckler received an e-mail from Schneider.

It was an invitation to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

“I didn’t answer for a day or two,” Winckler says. “I let it sit there in my mind, let it kind of… absorb.”

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