PGR Journeys, Wellbeing

MS and the PhD

Today is World MS Day – a day which aims to raise awareness of multiple sclerosis and bring together those who are living with the condition to share their stories.

MS is a neurological condition that affects the brain, optic nerves and spinal cord causing a range of symptoms such as problems with balance, vision and muscle control. The cause of MS is currently unknown, and at the moment there is no cure. However, research is progressing quickly in the hope of finding one.

Here, Eman Al-Wattar, School of Chemistry, shares her story of living with MS while studying for her PhD.

It’s not easy to summarise the mental and physical issues that MS creates, many of which are invisible. Issues with sleep and anxiety are amongst the symptoms. This is uncomfortable and stressful for all those with MS, but particularly for PhD students (who are often already stressed and tired!) Like the moon has two faces – light and dark – people with MS face two extremes. Some days you just feel normal, healthy and even bright and shiny! While some other days are extremely difficult, and leave you feeling tired and depressed. Numbness and muscle pain are amongst the most common symptoms, but forgetfulness and physical fatigue also play a role.

A new way of life

The general medications for my MS act on the nervous system and include Avonex – a weekly pen injection. The injections are painful and make me sick for at least two days. I become shuddery, with cold-like symptoms and acute headaches.

Monthly tests, physical therapy and psychological care are all part of my normal routine, and I feel I have started to adapt to this way of life. Still, maintaining positive energy and a happy mood is a big challenge, especially being alone in another country away from my family.

Remaining positive is not always easy for an MS patient, but it is important because it helps us to move on and continue with our lives. Sympathy and support from others is so precious – it has really helped with my self-esteem and helped me to remain optimistic.

Relationships can sometimes suffer due to the emotional and physical problems that MS causes. Therefore, people with MS need understanding friends and loving partners as well as psychological care.

Challenges for a PhD student

Throughout my studies, one of the big difficulties has been trying to maintain my focus. Remembering to save my materials has also been a challenge!

After completing my first year, my health was particularly bad and I started using a walking stick. I found that everyone at the University was very sympathetic, supportive and helpful. The Health and Safety and Security teams ensured that I was safe and obstacle-free while working in the lab.

My advice to any PhD students who are dealing with illness whilst studying is as follows. Make sure you tell your Head of School and the School’s administrative staff about your situation – they will be able to do a health and safety assessment and make any adjustments you need. Try to be optimistic. You will have difficult days but try to put aside your illness as much as you can, in order to continue with your life.

Find out more about multiple sclerosis on the MS Society’s website.

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