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Knocked Down But Up For The Count

By Melissa Saranitzky, National MS Society Communications Coordinator

     WALLINGFORD, Conn. Ten years ago, while vacationing at a beach in Rhode Island with family and friends, Elizabeth “Liz” Gagliardi, a resident of Wallingford, Conn., was knocked off her feet by a rogue wave.

“The next day I was still feeling incredibly dizzy; I thought it was the residual effects of the unexpected fall,” recalled Gagliardi. “After blacking out, however I was taken to a local hospital. After a series of tests I was advised to cut my vacation short and return home to see my own primary care physician, who referred me to a neurologist. It was then I received my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.”

More than 6,000 Connecticut residents, like Gagliardi, are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a potentially debilitating disease affecting the central nervous system. Symptoms can include numbness in the extremities, a debilitating sensitivity to heat, extreme fatigue, and difficulties with vision and speech, stiffness and, in severe cases, total paralysis. The progress, severity and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot be predicted and there currently is no cure for multiple sclerosis.

Gagliardi managed to hide her diagnosis behind an active lifestyle. A longtime runner and full-time critical care nurse at Midstate Medical Center in Meriden, Conn., Gagliardi managed to balance her athletic pursuits, nursing career and role as a mother of three. Initially, Gagliardi did not discuss her illness with anyone except for her husband and parents.

“I didn’t want to worry my children,” explained Gagliardi. “At the time, they were all quite young, and I just didn’t want to upset them.”

In 1998, Gagliardi, her husband, James, their children and her parents participated in their first MS Walk event at the high school in Cheshire, Conn.

Kate, Gagliardi’s then 9-year-old daughter, grasped the hand of her grandmother, Kathy Birney, and pulled her down to eye level. She surveyed the gathering surrounding them.

“Do we know anyone with MS,” the young girl probed. Birney gently squeezed her granddaughter’s hand and replied, “Honey, I’m sure we do.”

Shortly after that day, Gagliardi was stricken with her first full blown exacerbation. Completely paralyzed and unable to speak, Gagliardi was hospitalized for many weeks. Gagliardi’s rehabilitation was long and arduous; it took several months for her to walk, speak and regain her strength. As a result, Gagliardi was never able to return to the career she loved.

Three times as many women as men are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Most women diagnosed with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50.

Gagliardi and her mother formed an official walk team a year later, the Birney Bunch, along with Gagliardi’s six brothers and 16 nieces and nephews. In 2006, the Birney Bunch raised more than $16,000. For the past eight consecutive years, the group has received the Most Money Raised Family Team award for the Cheshire Walk site.

“After Liz’s severe exacerbation, our family knew we had to do more to find a cure,” said Birney. “We don’t want anyone to have the same feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that our family has experienced.”

Despite their continued walk team success, Birney and Gagliardi remain humble, kindhearted and dedicated to the cause. 

“Research is crucial,” said Gagliardi. “We all hope the progression of my disease will eventually come to a halt as a result of advanced research. All we can really do now is work together to raise funds to support efforts to find a cure. It’s imperative we never give up hope.”

Almost 10 years after her diagnosis, Gagliardi continues to lead as busy a life as is possible. She works as a part-time school nurse. She is also a distance runner coach of the girl’s track team at Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Conn.

“Coaching the track team has been a positive experience for me as well as the girls,” said Gagliardi. “If I was still working full-time, I might not have had the opportunity to coach. Multiple sclerosis has definitely changed my life, but amazingly has added so much to it in many ways that I would have never dreamed possible.”

The mother and daughter duo’s continued dedication to find a cure is a testimony to a strength found when loyal friends and family band together for a single cause.

That unexpected wave of yesteryear revealed a hidden threat to Gagliardi’s life, yet, with the love of family and friends, she will never be swept off her feet in quite the same way ever again.

Gagliardi and Birney will usher the Birney Bunch into its ninth year at the 2007 Travelers MS Walk, this year presented by UnitedHealth Group, on Sunday, April 22, at Cheshire High School.

Seven other communities across Connecticut will host the walk event on Sunday, April 22. Additional sites include Clinton, Enfield, Manchester, New London, Simsbury, West Hartford and West Haven. A ninth site, Woodstock, will walk on Sunday, April 29. Lunch will be provided compliments of Subway and Coca-Cola. The event takes place rain or shine. To learn more about the walk event, tune to Comcast channels, WTNH News Channel 8, My TV 9, 97.7 WCTY, 96.5 TIC and 100.5 WRCH for the 2007 Travelers MS Walk, visit www.ctfightsMS.org or call (860) 714-WALK.




For More Information
Contact Melissa A. Saranitzky

Communications Coordinator
860.714.2300, ext. 239


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