Tragedies in Many Forms Challenge Woman to Step Up

Megan is a journalism major at Syracuse University and a former intern for the Connecticut Chapter of the National MS Society. She, along with three former classmates at Cheshire High School started the "Dunk It" Petit Memorial Basketball Tournament which has raised over $20,000 in the first 2 years of existence.

Megan decided to write this story about Jenifer for one of her classes and we thought it was so wonderful, we wanted to share it with you.

Tragedies in Many Forms Challenge Woman to Step Up

By Megan Alexander

Every once in a while your foot falls asleep or you lose feeling for a second in a limb, and you think nothing of it.

Jenifer Walsh, a mother of two in Cheshire, Conn., didn’t think much about it either-until it moved to her torso.

“I remember waking up one day and not feeling half of my stomach,” says a 44-year-old Walsh. “I got out of the shower, I was toweling off, and it felt like half of me wasn’t there. It was weird.”

Walsh was living with her sister, Mary Beth, at the time. Mary Beth is a physical therapist and referred Walsh to a neurologist.

This began a five-year ordeal of trying to figure out exactly what was causing Jenifer’s constantly changing symptoms. Her saga would prove character can truly triumph over illness.

“It became a process of elimination,” said Walsh. “Every time I had a new symptom they ruled out something else, starting with Lyme disease. They finally figured out it was MS 11 years ago when I was 33.”

And while this news was heartbreaking to Jenifer, it was not the only hard news she would face in the next few years.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that slowly breaks down the myelin sheath that covers the nerves.

The effects of this vary in each person. For some it changes the ability to think, or impairs vision. It can also create tingling or numbing sensations. Over time, MS can lead to paralysis or even death.

When talking to young children, such as her son’s second grade class, Walsh describes the degeneration of myelin as “a mouse chewing on a computer cord. It just doesn’t work the same way ”

For Jenifer, who before her diagnosis was an avid biker and runner, MS impairs her ability to lift her right leg. She has tingling and numbing sensations in the right side of her body, and her organs are starting to be affected, too.

“I now walk with a pronounced limp in my right leg. I just can’t quite pick it up,” said Jenifer.

Multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease. While symptoms may begin with just a slight tingling sensation, they advance at unpredictable rates over time and may cause brain lesions, total numbness, or paralysis.

For someone who was meeting Jenifer five years ago, it would have been easy to miss the fact that Jenifer struggled with MS.

“You could barely tell when I met her; now she walks with a pronounced limp,” said Karen Butler, vice president of communications for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Connecticut Chapter.

But this has dramatically changed.

“Over the last couple of years her walking has gotten worse,” said Trudy Mason, a neighbor of the Walsh’s. ”Over the last four months it has gotten heartbreakingly worse.”

But these medical challenges have not stopped Jenifer.

“I started fundraising the year I was diagnosed with MS,” said Jenifer. “Don(her husband) and I did our first Walk MS in Cheshire that year with our daughter Cara.”

Walk MS is an event organized by the National MS Society with the goal of raising funds in order to support chapter services and continue scientific research.

After just a few years Jenifer’s team, Team Jenifer, had grown from a team of three to a team of about 200, and become a top fundraiser in the state.

“We had always noticed Jenifer and Don at walk because their team was always so much bigger than everyone else’s team,” remembered Bill Petit, a man who would ultimately become very connected to the Walsh family.

And as if her team wasn’t raising enough money, having already made top fundraising team lists or won largest family team almost every year, Jenifer and her husband Don started a beer tasting event in 2005 that now raises about $10,000 for her team annually.

“In the last 11 years we have raised about $120,000,” said Jenifer.

“Don and Jenifer have also been members of the Cheshire Walk MS Planning Committee,” said Butler“ They help with organizing the logistics of the walk, they help us with finding sponsors specifically for the Cheshire walk site, they do a myriad of things.”

However, this wasn’t what put Jenifer in the spotlight.

It was only after the triple murder in Cheshire, Conn. of another Jennifer, and her only two children, Hayley and Michaela Petit, that Jenifer Walsh fell into the public eye. The home invasion left one survivor, Bill Petit, badly beaten, and created a whirlwind of media including sources such as the New York Times, People Magazine, MSNBC, 60 Minutes, and Dateline.

This hit Don Walsh particularly close to home.

“It affects me in a number of ways only because when something that close to home happens, and you know it was random, you start thinking this could have been any of us,” says Don. “But then as I started to get to know Bill, and started to get to know his family…I found (Bill and I) have a lot of similarities in our lives. We both married Jenifers, we both had two kids…and our wives both had MS.”

Jennifer Petit was diagnosed with MS in 1999 and that spring her daughter Hayley, who was 9 at the time, started Hayley’s Hope, a Walk MS team. Over the following nine years, Hayley raised over $55,000, and prepared her young sister Michaela to create her own team, Michaela’s Miracle, for the 2008 Walk MS.

“I met Jennifer and Hayley at a dinner that the MS society does every year to honor people from Walk MS. We just talked a little bit,” said Walsh. “We just said hi, everybody was kind of quiet. It was kind of like sitting at a wedding with other people.”

“I remember talking to (Hayley) and being amazed by who she was, how mature she was,” said Don Walsh. “I remember saying I hope this is what my kids are like. We would watch what she raised, and every year it got higher and higher.”

Don was the first in the Walsh family to find out about the murders.

“I was at work and I got an email from the walk coordinator for the Cheshire site to the Cheshire committee passing on her condolences for what happened today, that she knew what a tight knit community we were and she was so sorry. I had no idea what had happened so I emailed her back,” said Don Walsh. “She called me and told me, and I immediately called Jenifer.”

“We left for vacation about a week later at the Cape, in the same spot the Petits had been about a week before the home invasion,” said Jenifer Walsh. “We were in the BJs in Hyannis getting all our food when we first got to the Cape, and there was the People Magazine with the Petits on the cover”.

“We just had to do something for this family,” said Jenifer Walsh. “We just started talking about it and we were just like ‘Why don’t we try to do luminaries town wide?’  Because it hit so hard in this town, everybody wanted to do something. It was just the idea that went like wildfire.”

And so Lights of Hope was born.

Six months later 133,000 candles had been sold, raising $133,000 for the Hayley’s Hope and Michaela’s Miracle MS Memorial Fund.

The luminaries covered the town of Cheshire.  Every 10 feet, on almost every road in town, a candle was lit in the memory of the three Petit women.

“We didn’t want people to remember (Cheshire) as a place of tragedy, we wanted to erase the memory without forgetting,” said Don Walsh. “It is a sign of unity and hope for our community.”

The event also continues the fundraising started by Hayley and Michaela.

“It means that people care, that people want to help, to reach out,” said Petit.

This year as Jenifer was getting ready for the second annual Lights of Hope, she was reminded of why she had been raising money to help fight MS for so long.

“I hadn’t seen my neurologist in two years,” said Jenifer Walsh. “So I went to Dr. Spass and he says ‘Let’s do a brain and spinal MRI,’ so not thinking anything, the results come back and I have lesions on my brain, active lesions.”

Lesions are another symptom of MS that can develop as the disease progresses.

“They are scars that attach themselves to your spine and brain,” explained Jenifer. “They could grow or they could replenish. I have 3 on my brain.”

And these lesions affect many bodily functions. For Jenifer, it currently affects her bladder and fine motor control.

“I’ll be eating dinner and ill just drop my fork,” says Jenifer.

And yet Jenifer won’t give up. She does three workout classes at Cheshire Fitness for Women, a gym in town. She makes it a point to participate in her kids’ lives, and continues in the fight against MS.

“She’s truly an inspiration to those of us with MS and those who don’t have MS. She gets in here, she does her workout, and she puts everything into it,” said Farrah Fiedler, Jenifer’s trainer at Cheshire Fitness for Women. “She doesn’t just let MS take over.”

Because of this, Jenifer Walsh was selected to be the 2009 Travelers Walk MS Spokesperson for the National MS Society, Connecticut Chapter. More than 6,000 Connecticut residents battle the potentially debilitating disease, 400,000 nationwide. The disease is 2 to 3 times more likely to occur in women than in men and it is most commonly diagnosed in people 20 to 50 years old.

Walk MS raises money in order to ensure ongoing scientific research to find better treatments and a cure, as well as to provide vital programs and services offered by the chapter to those in the state living with multiple sclerosis.

“She was the model for all the promotional materials, print ads, she was the talent in the radio and TV public service announcements, she had to do numerous speaking engagements including at the state capital, and many TV and radio interviews,” said Butler. “Her main function was to raise awareness and promote the walk; to localize the fight and illustrate the many faces of MS”

And like almost everything Jenifer is a part of, the walk was a huge success, with more then 6,700 people preregistered.

“Especially in a downturned economy, the Friday before the walk we had the greatest number of people preregistered in the history of Walk MS,” said Butler. “Our goal is to raise $1.23 million, and the fundraising is extended until May 22.”

For the first time Jenifer might need the medical and emotional resources that will be provided with this money.

“When Jenifer had her last MRI, and she had the lesions we were all shocked. We were concerned about the meds they wanted her to go on and what the lesions would mean,” said Don Walsh. “Jen emailed Lisa (the state’s top MS chapter officer) that Friday night asking for support. We expected her to get back to us on Monday, but Saturday morning at 9 a.m. Lisa called the house.”

“Lisa said this is what we’re gonna do, this is who you can call,” recalled Don Walsh. “That was really impressive to us. After doing everything, we can get the support we need whenever we want it. It was great to see that they were so responsive and really cared.”

“My biggest fear is being in a wheelchair...I can’t-it’s just a mental thing. I can barely use my cane when I have to,” said Jenifer Walsh. “I think I ignore the whole disease but it’s getting to the point where I can’t ignore it anymore. I’ve been using my cane more…I don’t like it but it helps me with my balance. I don’t want to give into it but recently I’ve been having to.”

While Jenifer may feel like she’s giving in, others can only see the fight she is putting up against the disease.

“She’s an inspiration,” says the Walsh’s neighbor, Mason. “She makes sure you get up and get your feet on the pavement. If she can do it, anyone can.” to keep up with our high standards of service, we need a little more time.

Please stop by again. Thank you for your interest!

Comments are closed.