MEEKER — The students in Sallie Harrison's fourth-grade science and math classes may never have noticed how she wrote on the chalkboard until she couldn't.
Last year, she temporarily lost the ability to lift her right arm. The day before Christmas, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Harrison had dealt with symptoms for more than a year. Headaches, fatigue and a tingling sensation that felt like ants crawling on her arms and legs would surface unpredictably, but losing an important skill for guiding her students was something she couldn't ignore.
“It was nice to finally know what's wrong,” she said, “but the reality sets in that this is not something I'm going to get over.”
Now she is learning her limits and accepting new challenges with the help of a psychological practice focused on positivity. And in dealing with her condition, she finds ways to enlighten her students and her family.
In the classroom
Every year, Harrison makes a bracelet of about 50 metal tabs, each one stamped with the initials of her students at Meeker Elementary School. She prays for them daily.
Last year, the state Education Department recognized her as one of five “Rising Stars” in education, an award given to teachers who might have been considered for Teacher of the Year if they had enough experience.
After her diagnosis, Harrison had to learn to ask for assistance. She had wanted it to seem like she could complete tasks on her own, but gradually she realized people wanted to help.
Her students noticed cleaning the classroom was difficult for her, so now they pitch in.
“They're contributing to their own little society, their own community,” she said.
They know that sometimes she'll have trouble keeping her balance and sometimes she'll drop something and have trouble picking it up. They know that she has MS, and they at least have a general idea of what that is because she made it part of their lessons.
“When I found out, I showed them, ‘Well, here's the brain cell, and here's the myelin sheath,'” she said, referring to the insulating material around neurons that is damaged by MS.
Harrison once led a robotics club.
She got certified to drive a bus on field trips, which is why some of her kids call her “Mrs. Frizzle,” a reference to the red-haired character on “The Magic School Bus” television show.
But she had to cut back on those activities. She found other teachers to take over robotics lessons, and she can't drive the bus anymore. Driving her own car is challenging enough.
Fatigue is the most relentless symptom.
Harrison has children ages 8, 18 and 21, two of whom live at home with her and her husband, Jeff. After seven hours of teaching and a couple more for planning, it's been hard for Sallie Harrison to save energy for her family, but with some new techniques she is finding the right balance.
The Harrisons were one of five families selected for “Everyday Matters,” a National MS Society program sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Genzyme that offered them free training in positive psychology in exchange for blogging about their experiences.
Positive psychology is a scientific-based study of what affects mood, said Michelle Clos, a life coach who worked with the Harrisons.
There is some indication happiness can help people trying to manage a medical condition, Clos said.
“Certainly this could apply to anybody with a chronic illness, but this is the first time it is being applied to MS,” she said.
Participants learned seven principles defined by Shawn Achor, an author and former lecturer at Harvard, that could help them learn to live with their symptoms and be less overwhelmed.
Sallie Harrison's favorite methods are the “Zorro circle,” which teaches how to focus on completing small parts of larger tasks, and “Falling Up,” which encourages people to look for the positives in negative situations. Positive psychology is not a cure by any means, said Clos, who also has MS, but it is a tool for helping people find solutions.
Sallie Harrison records her morning lectures for afternoon classes, and posts the videos online for parents.
There are blocks of time in her day for catching her breath, and she makes a point of spending at least 15 minutes with her 8-year-old away from any distractions.
Living with MS can affect entire families.
Jeff Harrison said he has realized that as he changes his own habits to help his wife.
“I think when she was diagnosed, we weren't necessarily in denial, but we were shocked,” he said.
They moved to a 40-acre plat near Prague a few years ago because they wanted a rural lifestyle, but Sallie Harrison's MS means she can't work the land very much, leaving more for the rest of the family to do.
Jeff is her driver whenever he's available, and at home, he's learning helpful new skills.
“I've learned to cook now,” he said. “I've never cooked in my life.”
Something as simple as unloading the dishwasher doesn't just take a chore off Sallie Harrison's list, it keeps her from having to experience pain, he said.
Sallie Harrison said she plans to keep teaching as long as possible. If her symptoms start preventing her from being an effective teacher, then she will quit, but for now, with the help of some lifestyle changes, she is more than comfortable in the classroom.
“It's a passion,” she said. “It's a thrill.”