Pathway To Wellness

Andy Tomasic was 20 years old when he climbed out of bed one morning and collapsed. The son of a former Major League Baseball and NFL player Andrew Tomasic Sr., Andy had always been healthy and active in sports, so the sudden weakness in his legs was baffling.  “I just dropped to the floor,” he says. “I knew something was very wrong.”

Andy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system. Andy was able to manage his disease well. Although he walked with a cane, he says his symptoms remained “pretty much in the background,” which allowed him to go on with his life working for a local cement company and later rebuilding diesel engines. Then, about eight years ago, he fell and shattered his hip bone.

“For whatever reason, it wasn’t repairing well,” he says. “They did a hip replacement and that’s what put me in the (wheel) chair.”

No two people experience MS exactly the same way. But for Andy, who lives in Allentown, and 30 others who participate in Good Shepherd’s MS Wellness Program, there is a shared need for a community of people who know what it’s like to live with MS. There are the good days and there are the bad days. But every day spent in the companionship of one another is a day well spent.

“Just being with people who understand the problems of having MS is helpful,” says Andy, who works out in Good Shepherd’s Optimal Fitness gym five days a week and attends the twice weekly group meetings offered by the MS Wellness Program. 

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Andy was working on a still-life painting in an MS therapeutic art class at Good Shepherd.

“This allows me to get into my own head and just express myself,” he says. “I enjoy that. You don’t have to be a good artist. I always come away with a good feeling.”

In addition to the weekly opportunities to socialize and learn, participants in the program benefit from a wide range of support services through a care manager who helps them navigate the complexities of living with MS. Dealing with insurance issues and reimbursement concerns, scheduling psychology appointments, and addressing housing and landlord problems are all part of the mix. 

Good Shepherd also provides free round-trip, door-to-door transportation to all participants at a cost of $6.80 per round trip. This year, the projected cost for this aspect of the program alone is almost $19,300.

The art program, which includes a paid instructor, runs in excess of $5,500 a year; and charitable and indigent patient care for the program’s 31 participants costs more than $42,000 a year. Ninety-nine percent of the clients who attend the program are on very low incomes, Medicaid and limited Social Security disability income.

Funding for the Wellness Program relies heavily on donor partnerships.  One of the most steadfast supporters has been the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), Greater Delaware Valley Chapter, which through the years has donated more than $370,000 to Good Shepherd’s MS Program. Most recently, the MS Wellness Program received a $50,000 grant.

“The full cost of attending the MS Wellness Program is about $65 a day (per person),” says Jerry Werner, a multiple sclerosis certified specialist who is the MS Wellness Program manager and has led the program’s growth in 13 years from a handful of participants. “With the donation of the NMSS and the willingness of Good Shepherd to provide services without cost, we’re able to charge just $5 per person for those who demonstrate financial need to attend the program. Without help from NMSS, we would not be able to offer the quality program our participants count on to help them deal with the challenging issues of MS.”

A strong “giving back” component is ingrained in the Good Shepherd culture, and relationship-building with the national MS organization dedicated to the broader fight against MS has motivated a number of Good Shepherd associates to literally go the extra mile. In addition to participation in the annual MS Walk, a small cadre of Good Shepherd associates and friends pump it up in the annual Bike MS: City to Shore ride. In the last six years, the Good Shepherd team, of which Jerry is a part, has raised about $45,000.

Joining in the ride this year was Carrie Kane, a speech pathologist/assistive technology professional, who works closely with many of Good Shepherd’s long-term care residents. Carrie rode 150 miles over two days from Cherry Hill, NJ, to Ocean City, NJ, in honor of the residents who have MS.  Many of their names were taped on her helmet.

For Carrie, the ride was a milestone in her recovery from reconstructive ankle surgery and a way of saying thanks to the physical therapists at Good Shepherd who helped her gain strength.

“I was fatigued but empowered. I wanted a goal that would not only help my recovery, but also help raise funds for others,” says Carrie who has two metal rods in her left ankle. “I still have some pain and swelling, but it’s nothing compared to what people with MS have to deal with.”

A new donor partnership within the last three years has a powerful personal story behind it. Candice Arnold was entering her senior year at Muhlenberg College in Allentown when she started developing symptoms which led to a diagnosis of MS. She was 25 years old. 

In 2005, Candice, then majoring in business administration with a concentration in entrepreneurial studies, needed a school project. An avid ice hockey player since childhood, she conceived of a fund raiser for the National MS Society, calling it “Hockey Fights MS.” It began with seven women’s teams competing at the Steel Ice Center in Bethlehem.

But Candice, a 1998 Parkland High School graduate now living near Burlington, Vt., had played hockey all around the Lehigh Valley and wanted to see funds remain in the community. She did some research into who in the Lehigh Valley was the leader in rehabilitation and Good Shepherd rose to the top.

“I’d heard of Good Shepherd for years,” she says, “but I never really knew how big a scope it had. I was really impressed with what was offered to the MS community.”

Although the tournament has expanded to 101 teams in four states raising money for MS research and other rehabilitation centers, funds raised at the Pennsylvania tournament all support Good Shepherd’s MS Program.

In the last three years, Hockey Fights MS has raised more than $26,000 for Good Shepherd. This past year, 650 players from 49 men’s and women’s teams competed in the Pennsylvania tournament held in August.

Doing their part is the Lehigh Valley Whalers of which Eric Simons, senior accountant at Good Shepherd, is a member. The Whalers have played in the tournament for the last four years. Besides placing first in their division in the 2013 men's Pennsylvania tournament, the Whalers also placed first in the team fund raising competition which earned them automatic placement in next year’s tournament.

“The team has really gotten into it,” says Eric. “Knowing Candice and some of the battles she’s gone through living with MS has touched our team and the other teams too. It’s a great cause.”

Candice never expected her school project to turn into a full-time job, but now she can’t see herself doing anything else. She says her MS doesn’t limit doing the things she loves, which includes playing hockey.

“I’m not as fast but I still love it,” she says. “I love the people that come out for these tournaments. They have such good hearts. And we have quite a following in the Lehigh Valley. It’s uplifting. Next year will be my first year to devoting 100 percent of my time to this and growing it big. I want to look back and say, I created this, I built this, I grew this. I want to leave behind a legacy or some sort of special path.”

Whether she knows it or not, Candice has already created that path, along with all those who support Good Shepherd’s MS Program. And for clients like Andy Tomasic, it makes the journey just that much easier.

“There are days when I get in a hole, but coming to Good Shepherd and seeing so many people with so many different problems, I focus on how lucky I am,” says Andy. “If it wasn’t for Good Shepherd, I’d be stuck.”

 

The National MS Society has designated Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Lehigh Neurology as a Comprehensive Care Center for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. Good Shepherd’s MS Wellness Program meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 2 pm in the Health & Technology building on the south Allentown campus. For more information, contact Jerry Werner at jwerner@gsrh.org or call her at 610-776-3585.

Learn more about about Hockey Fights MS.  Team registration opens around February 1, 2014. The Lehigh Valley Whalers will hold fund raisers for Hockey Fights MS benefiting the MS Wellness Program on December 24 and May 10; and June 5, at Allentown Brew Works. For information, contact Blake Strobl at 610-597-7792, or mrhatrik@ptd.net.