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Oklahoma teacher adjusts to multiple sclerosis

Accepting help from students and family has helped Oklahoma teacher Sallie Harrison remain in the classroom at Meeker Elementary School.
BY PETER WRIGHT Published: November 5, 2012

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.

Making changes

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.”