Facing MS

When Ronda Giangreco, a cook and author, woke up one morning in 2008 with numbness on the left side of her body, she thought it could be a temporary aftereffect of one too many glasses of wine during a visit to California wine country the day before. But when the sensation didn’t go away, Ronda and her husband Michael went to the emergency room. A few weeks later—following multiple doctor visits and several potential diagnoses—Ronda learned she had multiple sclerosis (MS).

Michael was very familiar with this diagnosis: his mother had MS and died of associated complications, and he’d been diagnosed with the disease in his thirties, but had been mostly asymptomatic. Michael’s initial shock at the news was quickly replaced by concern for Ronda. He immediately resolved to do whatever he could to support her. “Living with MS myself, and seeing my mother face the challenges of living with severe MS, I thought, ‘We’ll figure this out. We’ll get through it.’”

A marvelous thing happened; we were having so much fun that we forgot to be afraid.

- Ronda Giangreco

For many couples, MS can take a toll on their relationship. The MS MindSet Survey, which polled 800 people with MS and their support partners in the United States, found that the unpredictable nature of the disease often caused them to miss daily activities, avoid making long-term plans and limit social commitments. Of the support partners surveyed, 55 percent said this unpredictability had an impact on their relationship, and one-third said they were not prepared for how much work caring for someone with MS can be.

After being diagnosed with MS, Ronda and her husband Michael — who have always enjoyed entertaining — successfully planned and hosted Sunday dinners for family and friends every week for a year.

Following the diagnosis, Ronda and Michael, who married in 2000 and currently live in Sonoma, Calif., were determined to make the best of their situation and decided to take a creative, positive approach. For example, when Michael recalled that his mother’s greatest joy had been visiting with family every Sunday for a traditional Italian meal, Ronda—who is a gifted cook and went to cooking school in Italy—had an idea. She decided she would throw a Sunday dinner party every week for a full year to help her cope with her diagnosis. Every weekend, she planned and cooked four-course meals for six guests, while Michael poured the wine. They shared stories and enjoyed laughs over Italian cuisine. “A marvelous thing happened; we were having so much fun that we forgot to be afraid,” said Ronda, who turned this experience into a book called “The Gathering Table: Defying Multiple Sclerosis with a Year of Pasta, Wine and Friends.”

Despite Ronda and Michael’s attempts to remain optimistic, they have had struggles—particularly when Ronda experienced mobility issues, fatigue and pain. In one instance, Ronda had to visit the emergency room because of severe pain on the day of a planned Sunday dinner. “When I got home that day, I had to find some workarounds to get dinner ready,” said Ronda. “For example, one of our favorite desserts was an olive oil cake, made from a recipe with about 50 steps. On that day, I simplified the recipe, using a cake mix and replacing the butter with olive oil. The cake tasted as good as the original, and no one noticed the difference!”

Ronda developed new, simpler recipes to help deal with the symptoms of her MS. Here she makes her “Can Do Olive Oil Cake.”

Ronda and Michael try to prepare in advance for disruptions and be flexible when the disease inevitably makes life unpredictable. “I focus on being Ronda’s safety net and paying attention to how she’s feeling, keeping in mind any factors that may worsen her symptoms, such as heat, stress or fatigue,” explained Michael. “I also keep a cane in the car in case she has mobility trouble.”

It’s helped me to remember that this disease can affect your partner almost as much as it affects you, so we try to always be a team and take care of one another.

- Ronda Giangreco

As part of being an attentive support partner, Michael makes sure to allocate time for himself—which gives him the energy to keep going. “I’m good at maintaining my own health, both physically and mentally,” he said. “There are times when I know the best thing I can do to help Ronda is to do something to help care for myself.”

“It’s helped me to remember that this disease can affect your partner almost as much as it affects you, so we try to always be a team and take care of one another,” Ronda added.

Michael calls MS a “blurse”—a combination blessing and curse—for their relationship. Part of the blessing for Ronda and Michael has been the lessons they learned together as a couple that have strengthened their marriage.

Ronda and Michael look for available resources to help manage the day-to-day unpredictability of MS, including those listed on GatherMS.com.

Ronda and Michael have experienced that honesty and clear communication—including how difficult it can be to cope with this disease and knowing when to ask for help—are their secrets to keeping their relationship strong. “We’ve heard many people with MS and their support partners say they feel like they are in it alone and don’t know where to turn for help,” said Ronda. “But the good news is that resources are available, including support groups and advocacy organizations that offer programs for couples. One place we recommend is GatherMS.com,* an online platform brought to the MS community by Genentech, that brings together existing resources and services to help people with MS and their support partners navigate the everyday unpredictability of the disease.”

For Ronda and Michael, MS has taught them that they can overcome anything together. “When you go through something as difficult as a chronic disease diagnosis, the truth is you learn what you and your partner are made of. I feel lucky to know I’m with someone who really took the words ‘in sickness and in health’ to heart,” said Ronda. “I could not have asked for a better partner for this journey.”

*Ronda Giangreco is a paid spokesperson for GatherMS.com.