Hope fills the air at Walk MS event

Bill Bisch was in the midst of throwing a football during a family Thanksgiving game when his legs gave out and he fell face down.

The 57-year-old San Juan Capistrano resident was quickly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).

"MS changed my life dramatically," he said. "Who plans on retiring at 39?"

For the second year in a row, Bisch was the top fundraiser at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Walk MS event, hosted Saturday at UC Irvine. Along with his wife and sons, and members of Team Momentum, he contributed more than $30,000 to the cause.

Bisch described encounters with people who would mistake MS for muscular dystrophy, bolstering his commitment to a better understanding of the disease, which prevents the communication between nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord by compromising the myelin sheaths around them.

"I can't walk farther than 10 feet unassisted today, so my Segway is a great device," said Bisch, a five-time participant of Challenge Walk MS — a three-day, 50-mile trip from Carlsbad to Embarcadero Park, San Diego.

Despite living with MS for two decades, Bisch was one of 3,128 walkers who contributed a total of $435,000 by Saturday.

While the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has hosted walks for 26 years, the walk in Irvine debuted in 2005. Walkers — who showed up in every color imaginable, donning octopus-shaped headgear, feathers and boas, and accompanied by pooches with wrist bands and leis — raise funds throughout the year.

"You can't really help but be inspired when you meet these people who are diagnosed with this disease that they have to live with for the rest of their lives," said Richard Israel, president of the Pacific South Coast Chapter. "They have decided to come out and be part of the solution. These are very special people who don't stay at home feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, they are out working to find a cure and raise funds."

Last year, the entire chapter attracted a turnout of about 12,000 people. The walks are currently on track to match 2012's earnings of $1.6 million, Israel said.

Saturday's festive crowd featured parents pushing tutu-clad toddlers in strollers, while others completed the two-mile circuit in electric wheelchairs.

Lizbeth Najm, 60, of Mission Viejo, learned about the Walk MS thanks to her father, who lived with the disease for 26 years. Although he passed away in 1998 because of complications that arose from his condition, Najm and fellow members of Leggin' for Larry, a group named in honor of her father, continue to uphold the society's efforts.

"When my dad was first diagnosed, I said, 'Why my dad?' " she said. "But now when I look around at the advancement in treating MS, I think 'Why not my dad?' He was a stepping stone for the people who are diagnosed now."

Reminded of her 6-foot-6 father's transformation from a man who loved life and was a motorcycle police officer but was eventually confined to bed and needed help to even scratch his nose, Najm raised funds by collecting aluminum cans and bottles, organizing bake sales and selling candy at work.

"If I find a quarter lying on the ground, I'll pick it up and it goes directly to my MS piggy bank," she said.

Najm, a board member of the Pacific South Coast Chapter, also amassed a team of nurses, like herself, who provide first aid during the Challenge Walk MS.

"I look at my life this way — I worked as an operating room nurse for 37 years, but to me that is a hobby," she said. "Raising awareness and funds and finding a cure for MS is my real job."

Like Najm, Andrea Zarate, 31, is looking forward to the day when research discovers the cause of MS and supplies a cure. For her, this walk signifies "a lot of hope."

Flanked by her father Vincent Harden, creator of Make Some Noise for MS, a 50-person group of motorcycle enthusiasts, the Foster City resident recalled receiving word of her MS diagnosis in a voice mail six years ago.

"It knocked me down at first," she said, tearing up. "It took a while for me to get back up and realize that it wasn't the end. MS has affected my life and limited what I can do, but I've learned to adapt to it. I'm still a fighter and don't intend to stop any time soon."

Steve Guzman, 28, of Santa Ana, agreed.

In the aftermath of his diagnosis, Guzman walked away from the normal route of working a nine-to-five job and struck out on his own. In the eight years since, he has established a production company, climbed Half Dome in Yosemite, created a nonprofit called Turkey and Friends, and gone from 250 to 175 pounds.

"Living with MS has pushed me to do stuff that I was being lazy about and pushing to the side," he said. "I thought that if I'm going to do something with my life, I should do it now instead of waiting for later. I've done a lot of things that I never knew I could, so it made my life better."


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