La Cañada Flintridge resident Caroline Craven is a force to be reckoned with. A longtime equestrian, she’s been a university mascot, a river guide and a mountain biker who worked for a tech startup during the dot-com boom, among other pursuits.
“It was sort of the family motto that you live your life like a good book,” said Craven, 51. “Do what you can every single moment.”
That maxim served Craven well until her mid-30s, when she began to notice problems with her balance. One time, she ran her bike off a trail and hit a tree. In 2001, on a trip with girlfriends to Guatemala, her health took a plummet.
“I left for Guatemala feeling great,” she said, recalling continuing balance troubles and a mysterious choking reflex that prohibited eating. “I came back and I looked like I’d had four martinis at 8 in the morning. I couldn’t eat. My bones were showing.”
She booked an appointment with a neurosurgeon and soon had a devastating diagnosis in hand — she had multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that disrupts communication between the brain and body. In addition to dizziness, short-term memory loss (aka “cog fog”) and heat sensitivity were problematic. The last earned her the nickname “Therma Girl” among friends.
Craven had to give up many of the physical pursuits that had defined her life — no more biking or rafting, no more driving on the freeways. No more strenuous or stressful activities, including the rigors of the workplace. Today, she lives with parents Bob and Liz Craven in their La Cañada home. She is the youngest of their three offspring.
“She’s always taken things in stride and dealt with them,” Liz Craven said of her daughter’s fortitude. “We’re very proud of her.”
As Craven researched MS, thought by one study to affect up to 1.3 million Americans, she enrolled in a clinical trial for a new treatment. The double-blind study meant some participants would receive a placebo.
Hoping for the best, Craven threw herself into nutrition, crafting a diet low in inflammatory foods, which can exacerbate MS symptoms. She practiced yoga and became a certified life coach.
“I wanted to do as much as I could to improve my chances,” she remembered. “I really was looking at every option.”
Though Craven had ultimately been in the placebo group, she’d had one of the best outcomes among the study’s participants. Medically retired from work, she completed a graphic design program at Art Center College of Design and volunteered with Descanso Gardens. She’s also served on the La Cañada Flintridge Trails Council and Daughters of the American Revolution’s Don Jose Verdugo Chapter.
Craven renewed her interest in horsemanship, finding the wind in her hair healed her soul while the rhythmic familiarity of riding improved her balance. Friends and family drew around her in support.
“She’s not been the victim. She’s taken the offense and figured out how to deal with this disease,” Liz Craven said. “She’s researched online and figured out what food and what situations are best for her.”
Her health largely stabilized, Caroline Craven pondered how she might help others. Using an old blog she’d created for a now-inoperative nonprofit, she composed posts about living with multiple sclerosis and, through it, found a second calling.
Launched in 2009, “Girl with MS” offers practical tips to those with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. Read by more than 20,000 viewers monthly, the blog was recognized in May by the app MyTherapy as best motivational MS blog.
She parlayed her social media prowess into a regular role as contributing writer for health information site Healthline.com. She writes weekly news articles on the subject.
Healthline News Editor David Mills oversees the work of “condition writers,” whose articles pertain to health issues they’ve experienced. Craven’s contributions add value to the site, he said.
“We want someone who’s knowledgeable about the subject matter and has empathy and understands the condition they’re writing about but, at the same time, they’re a good writer,” Mills said. “Caroline fits that very well. She knows what issues are important to her community and knows what questions need to be answered.”
These days, the Girl with MS is back on top. She’s working on a practical guide and a book about intimacy for sufferers and their loved ones. She’s also helping a team of young people develop of a new comic book character: Therma Girl.
The old family motto is beginning to ring true once more.
“You’ve just got to live life to the fullest,” she surmises. “And you have to be positive.”