Meredith Jaggard wants you to know she does not think of herself as a hero, or as anything special, though many who know her would disagree. “I just so happened to have my bump in the road at 32,” she said. “We’re all going to have our bumps in the road in life. It’s really no different than anything anyone else is going through. It just so happens that mine is a disease. Whatever.”
Meredith is a Spring Valley High School and Wofford College alumna and now the senior director of membership marketing and social media for the My Carolina Alumni Association. Her “bump in the road” came May 22, 2015, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (commonly known as MS). She and her husband took a trip to Asheville after getting the news, and on May 24, in the mountains, Meredith made the decision that has shaped her life ever since. “I promised myself that I was going to do everything I could and I was going to beat MS. I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I’m going to do it. I don’t care what anyone says, that you can’t beat it, I’m going to beat it.”
MS is, according to the National MS Society, “a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. It is thought to be an immune-mediated disorder, in which the immune system incorrectly attacks healthy tissue in the CNS.” Symptoms can vary widely from patient to patient, making the disease difficult to diagnose and, so far, incurable. However, many people with MS are able to manage the disease and live a normal lifespan.
“It’s not something that is definitive, which is insane, because so many people have it but they don’t know a lot about it,” Meredith said. In her case, symptoms include fatigue, trouble walking or standing, and numbness in her fingers. “I think it’s a lot like having the flu. The flu strain every year is so different and they can never find a cure or a shot for it, and I think it’s the same with MS.”
Meredith’s first months after the diagnosis were spent researching the disease, with help from family and friends, and learning how to beat it. She also learned that though doctors are professionals, they often have different views. “A lot of doctors, I don’t see eye to eye with them, and I think that is one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned is that you have to take your health into your own hands,” she said. “It’s up to me to be the powerful force that moves us forward with their help.”
Meredith and her husband found two doctors who are experts at treating MS, one in Charlotte and one in Portland, Oregon. She set out to get their help with the determination that becomes clear in her personality after even a brief conversation with her. “I called every day for three months to get an appointment,” she said. She succeeded. “They’re both fabulous women, fabulous physicians, and they have the same mindset that I do, that medication is not always the answer.”
She chose not to take medications that help some MS patients with their symptoms, opting instead to fight the disease with a change in lifestyle. “I would say that I’m 75 percent vegan, and then pizza, because pizza’s so good,” she said, laughing. “There are a lot of people that I’ve come in contact with over this past year who have changed their lifestyle, and it works. The crazy thing is that it’s not just for MS. Living that lifestyle works for a lot of different things.”
“The medication is potent and it makes you sicker than actually having MS,” she said. Doctors believe she has primary progressive MS, which gets worse over time and is most commonly seen in males over 40. “They’re having a hard time believing that this is really what I have, because it doesn’t fit any stereotypes.” Laughing again, she added “I’ve been [unusual] my whole life, nothing crazy there.” In addition to the diet change, she has consulted a holistic vitamin doctor and an iridologist. “I take a bunch of vitamins and minerals and I practice (I use that word very loosely) yoga, and I exercise a lot.”
In addition to fighting the disease herself, she has committed to raising awareness of MS and funds for research for a cure. “I want to raise awareness and I want to make this disease something that’s approachable, because it’s so hard to talk to someone about it,” she said. “The population has a very sad and negative view when it comes to MS…. If I can do anything, it’s to let people know that you can approach someone. We want to be talked to…A lot of people that I’ve talked to, they’re not ashamed of their MS, they’re just so scared and they don’t know what to do and they feel alone.”
Meredith has not had to fight alone, even on the worst days, which she freely admits happen. “I have the best peoples in the world,” she said with a smile. “We built a village that is strong and that is supportive of MS. It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with people like Lindsey and my sister and my husband and my parents, now six wonderful parents and more siblings than I can count. People responded. It was crazy.”
The response came in many ways, perhaps most tangibly when Meredith formed a team for the annual MS Walk fundraiser. Her initial goal was simply to raise $100 for the April 2016 event, and when that was quickly accomplished, she raised it to $2,001 with encouragement from her husband. She was more successful than she thought possible. She raised $7,150.09 as an individual and Team #MSJaggs raised $18,405.06.
“I can’t wrap my head around just how supportive everybody was.” she said. “It’s more than humbling. We had 310 people donate over $18,000. I don’t know what to attribute that to, but I do know that 310 people know what MS is now.”
Others have learned about the disease and her journey through her blog, where she shares her story. “It has been so humbling and wonderful to be able to talk to people just about what the’re going through. You know, as a human you just want to talk to someone, regardless of if you have a disease or not,” she said. “We all have a story to tell and I just live mine out loud.” One of the most recent blog posts is a love letter from her husband, Alex (known affectionately as Jaggs), written for the first anniversary of her diagnosis.
Part of her mission is to combat myths about the disease. “If I have to fight against anything, it’s that it’s not an immediate death sentence,” she said. “That’s what people think. I’m going to spend my life letting people know that it’s not, but more so letting people who just got diagnosed know that they’re going to be okay.”
“I truly want to be there for anyone when they get the news or they have a bad day,” she said. “Nobody knows unless you have this disease what it feels like.”
She said letting the people in her life know about the disease was also an important step. Her attitude from the beginning when people expressed sympathy was “Don’t be sorry. Let’s do this!” She said “I think half of the battle of any disease is informing the people in your life what this really is and what it entails, and kind of putting your village to work… Everyone wants to do something for you when you get bad news…I’m thankful that I have the personality that I was like ‘Okay. Here’s what you need to do.”
Meredith and her husband still travel often, as they did before the diagnosis She still works, still takes part in community activities, and simply adjusts as needed. “I don’t want MS to ever be an excuse or a reason I can’t do something. There are ways to get around everything,” she said. “You can live your life and just make ways to live it.”
“It’s opened my eyes to everyone’s story,” she said. “Being vulnerable about this has been the best thing. I would tell anyone open yourself up. Don’t be scared to say what’s going on with you, because while you’re looking at me, it doesn’t look like anything’s wrong.”
Meredith said she begins many days by wiggling her fingers to make sure she can, then standing to make sure she can. “Having MS isn’t fun but it certainly puts life into perspective about what is important and what kind of purpose am I living,” she said. “I know when I walk in this building today is a good day, because I’m here. I am just like you today.”
The diagnosis of an incurable disease at 32 would be called a tragedy by many. “Horrible” is a word others might use. Meredith has a very different description: “wonderful.”
“I want to live life out loud,” she said. “In life, you don’t get to pick a lot. You don’t get to decide the things that happen to you. This has happened to me and I embrace it. I think that it’s wonderful. I think that in life you don’t get handed anything that you can’t handle, and I can handle this.”