John O’Brien of Blue Springs loved running, but a debilitating disease has prevented him to enjoy his passion for nearly 25 years.
That is until now. O’Brien has just participated in a marathon for the first time in decades – ever since the early 1970s, when the former smoker was introduced to running by his daughter.
“I quit smoking in ’72 and my daughter challenged me to start running,” O’Brien recalled.
What began as a “slow jog,” progressed into running 12 and a half miles in 10 degree weather in only a T-shirt and shorts.
“He was hellbent on being a macho man,” laughed his wife, Laura O’Brien. He said he can only attribute his love of running to a “runner’s high,” a euphoric feeling one gets during a prolonged run session when the body releases endorphins into the bloodstream.
But during the late 1980s, O’Brien frequently tripped during his daily runs and lost concentration at work as a computer programmer at AT&T.
“Co-workers were covering for me at times. Programming is not easy. I was later assigned to do menial stuff.”
In 1990, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease in which your body’s immune system eats away the protective sheath, called myelin, that covers nerves. According to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, some symptoms include balance problems, muscle weakness, blurry vision and coordination difficulties. A cure has not been found for the autoimmune disease.
“It was devastating,” said O’Brien of the day he was told the diagnosis. “I sunk into a major depression.”
A year later, O’Brien took an early retirement from his computer programming position and has since relied on disability and his pension as sources of income. Since his diagnosis, he has used a walking cane for mobility, and for some years, he became wheelchair-bound due to his progressive form of MS. He also said he experienced “intense bouts of fever” from his condition.
“I would get limp and sometimes couldn’t even blink.”
In 1998, a person introduced him to apitherapy, the medicinal use of products made by honeybees. This includes bee venom usage, according to the American Apitherapy Society.
Using bee venom for the first time to treat John’s MS was a turning point for him, say the O’Briens. Laura said he was ailing severely due to his MS before the apitherapy treatments.
“He was a complete shade of gray in the face.”
“Bee venom stimulates the body’s immune system to work properly rather than modern medicine (such as pharmaceuticals) suppressing it,” said John. “It specifically reacts to your white blood cells, leukocytes.”
He said your body has to initially build up a tolerance to the bee venom, and he currently has three apitherapy sessions a week with six bee stings each.
The AAS’s website says, ”... growing scientific evidence suggests that various bee products promote healing by improving circulation, decreasing inflammation and stimulating a healthy immune response.”
John also said his doctors at the time were concerned about his alternative form of treatment, especially since he did not possess an EpiPen, an auto-injector that releases epinephrine into the body if it has an allergic or adverse reaction to the venom. According to O’Brien, there was no need for one and the venom has proved to be beneficial.
“The bee venom actually has analgesic properties, too,” he said. “My muscles became more relaxed, and it also improved my skin tone.”
“The gray shade on his face disappeared,” said his wife. “The dark circles under his eyes were gone, too.”
John credits the apitherapy for his increased mobility. He began attending Planet Fitness in Blue Springs when it opened in 2012, where he performs “all kinds of workouts,” including both upper body and leg exercises, a couple times a week.
“It is cheap and everyone is pleasant there.”
John eventually had a goal of running again. Nine months ago, he started training, along with a healthy diet, for the 2014 Walk MS: Greater Kansas City that was held earlier this month in Kansas City, Kan. He said he didn’t participate to accomplish personal goals, but rather for his wife, who has experienced health issues of her own.
“Her health was deteriorating,” said John. “She drove me to get better. She has been helping me all this time.”
Laura O’Brien said she had a benign tumor removed from her brain not too long ago and has to rely on walking cane as well.
And on April 5, John O’Brien participated in Walk MS, a running event for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century.
“I almost made it a mile,” wrote John in an email. “According to the map, I was between 2/3 or 3/4 of a mile when I had to ‘throw in the towel.’ My lower right leg/foot was starting to drag. Laura rode behind me on a scooter to keep me company.”
Not only did he participate for his wife and family, but to also support the Mid America Chapter of the National MS Society.
“They installed a custom shower for me,” O’Brien said. “They really support and help people afflicted with the disease.”
These days O’Brien maintains a healthy lifestyle, along with continuing his apitherapy. He hopes to complete a full mile in next year’s MS Walk.
Meanwhile, both O’Brien and his wife urge the public to be considerate when using a store-provided scooter. Although he says he exercises regularly and eats healthy, there are some occasions when his muscles hurt and he has to rely on motorized scooters to do his grocery shopping.
“People use them (scooters) because they are not handicapped, but because they are lazy.”
He added that most people these days “just want to take a pill,” and that getting to better health requires a will and personal motivation.
To donate to the National MS Society, visit http://www.nationalmssociety.org/Donate.