Michelle Graft felt like she was getting sick. Like she might have a run-of-the-mill cold.
And the tingling that shot down her right arm felt like it could be a pinched nerve.
But when she started having involuntary movement in her hand, Graft knew it was time to see a doctor.
She was scared waiting for test results. She would sit at her desk and cry.
Doctors diagnosed Graft with multiple sclerosis just before her 39th birthday. The disease causes damage to nerves in the brain or spinal cord.
A year after her diagnosis, the Council Bluffs woman is running a 166-mile segment of the MS Run the US relay. Her segment this week stretches from Vernal, Utah, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Graft is bringing two friends along with her for the relay. They helped her run 40 miles on Tuesday, the first day, which happened to be Graft’s 40th birthday.
“Only 126 more miles to go,” she said after the first leg.
The 3,100-mile relay, from Los Angeles to New York, raises funds to support multiple sclerosis research. Runners spend time training and fundraising before the relay, which is split into 18 segments. Graft has exceeded her $10,000 fundraising goal for the event by about $100.
In those with MS, the immune system attacks part of the nervous system, often leaving a scar or causing damage to surrounding nerve fibers. Attacks are unpredictable. Symptoms include walking and balance problems, fatigue, numbness and cognitive dysfunction.
Exercise is important for multiple sclerosis patients, said Dr. James Whalen. Whalen is Graft’s primary care physician at a CHI Health clinic in Council Bluffs. Physical activity helps with muscle strength, circulation and mental health for patients like Graft.
“She’s a very strong person, obviously, and she acclimated to this and took the attitude that ‘I have to make the best of this,’ ” Whalen said.
After the diagnosis, they talked over the best- and worst-case scenarios. Symptoms can vary from person to person, though the majority of people living with MS don’t become severely disabled, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. About two-thirds are able to walk, but some will need an aid like a cane.
So far, Graft hasn’t reported any significant relapses. Her doctor was surprised to hear about Graft’s relay endeavor.
“This is just unbelievable. What an inspiration to take something that’s a disaster diagnosis for most people, to take ownership of it ... and to be able to help other people by recognizing the need for the research and treatment,” Whalen said.
Graft, 40, leaned on her support system of family and friends while coping with her diagnosis.
Lori Doll, a friend and fellow runner, reminded Graft that the diagnosis was “not a death sentence.”
“She was very scared,” Doll said. “She was trying to establish her new normal and accepting that this is what she has.”
Doll and Graft met through the Greater Omaha Area Trail-runnerz, or G.O.A.T.z., a local running group. Graft had turned to running to cope with stress from a divorce, and joining G.O.A.T.z. led her to tackle a 50K race — or 31 miles.
The sport is also helping Graft to process her diagnosis and keep symptoms at bay. Sometimes Graft feels heaviness or numbness in her limbs. It can feel like she’s “pulling a tree trunk” behind her. Symptoms usually don’t last longer than a day or two, she said. Running helps to distract her.
“It keeps the monster away. It fills my body up with the feel-good stuff,” Graft said.
Graft has been training for the relay since November. She’s juggled training runs around raising her 11-year-old son, Landon.
“It will not be the last time I do something crazy, I’m sure,” Graft said. “I really want to use my passion for this.”
This year, two other local runners are participating in the relay. Tammie Kruszczak from Omaha, will run from Holdrege, Nebraska, to Lincoln. Kristina Myint, from Lincoln, will pick up in Lincoln and run to Des Moines. Kruszczak has raised about $3,300 and Myint has raised about $4,615.