At the age of 23, Rathangan native Aoife Kirwan had an idea of what she wanted to do with her life.
She was in her final year of a degree in visual arts in Waterford Institute of Technology, and had planned to go on and teach.
But when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), this all changed.
MS, a disease of the brain and spinal cord, affects approximately 9,000 people in Ireland.
As a teenager, Aoife (now 30) suffered with severe headaches and dizzy spells. In her early twenties she experienced numbness and loss of sensation in her hands and feet.
A number of tests were carried out, but doctors could not pinpoint what the problem was.
That was until she lost full vision in her right eye in February 2011.
Within two days she underwent an MRI scan, followed by a lumbar puncture a number of weeks later.
“When I was younger I didn’t have other symptoms which were MS specific, so it was never really considered.
“I had kind of visual disturbance, it wasn’t that I lost my sight, I used to get blurry vision and they put it down to ocular migraine.
“But when my vision actually went, that was the absolute key in the diagnosis, because the tests that were carried out uncovered the cause of all of my symptoms.”
Aoife, who has a very positive outlook on life, didn’t let her diagnosis get her down.
”For me, it is a manageable, treatable condition. You learn to just move on and get on with it. I’m very lucky in that I’m symptom free so it doesn’t really affect me on a day-to-day basis apart from the odd time I have a bit of fatigue, but again that’s quite manageable.
“I do realise that I’m very lucky in comparison to some other people.”
The sight in her right eye has completely returned and she leads a healthy, active lifestyle.
For anyone who feels like they may be suffering from similar symptoms, Aoife advises to keep a diary of signs and symptoms.
“MS tends to be present for quite some time before diagnosis, so you don’t just have it from the week before. If you looked at my lesion load on my MRI, MS had been affecting me for quite some time before diagnosis.
“I certainly thought that it was possibly stress related, and I didn’t want to go back to the doctor repeatedly out of fear they would think I’m a hypochondriac.
“I had that fear, but you know what, it doesn’t actually matter, what matters is you and that you get the best possible healthcare for yourself. Being afraid of what your doctor will think should never be a barrier for you. Seeking out answers and ensuring you get the help you need is what is important.
“Document your concerns, watch yourself over time. Issues may have a very simple cause. If you are concerned you’re better off to have a documented case for yourself, so if you do ever require further investigation you’ve got good information to go on.”
Aoife said that while every diagnosis is different, everyone knows their own limitations as a person.
“You can do what you can to take control of it, everybody’s diagnosis is different. Take things day by day.
“The best thing you can do for yourself is take control over your lifestyle.”
Aoife now works with MS Ireland as their information, advocacy and research assistant.
“I’m so lucky to have the opportunity, and the team I work with in MS are just incredibly supportive which is fantastic.”