Midtown: Community

Local woman is putting a face on MS

Dannyell Mitchell remembers her symptoms during a life-changing week in 2009:

The usual ptooo of spitting out toothpaste was more of a pffft, like blow-tickling a baby’s belly. A good-for-the-soul laugh with a co-worker “just didn’t feel right.”

Her vision sometimes blurred, and her gait was so imbalanced at times that she would bump into things. At other times, her hearing noticeably dulled.

“I was working crazy hours, 60 hours a week,” said Dannyell, now 39, of her engineering career. “I dismissed it all, thinking ‘I’m not taking care of myself. I’m not sleeping properly.’ Clearly, something was wrong.”

Looking in the mirror after the strange-feeling laugh, Dannyell realized the right side of her face wasn’t reacting. Still, she said, she pushed to complete a work project – and then, she went to her doctor.

A scolding for waiting so long to seek medical attention was followed by a round of tests, a visit to the neurologist and more tests. Dannyell’s diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, a chronic, progressive disease that damages nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

Across the country, March 11-17 is MS Awareness Week.

Worldwide, MS affects about 2.1 million people, said Kathy Goff, director of program and services for the Greater Carolinas Chapter of the National MS Society. The chapter serves about 14,000 people living with MS and their families in 82 counties in North Carolina and all of South Carolina.

A creative line-up of activities around Midtown and the Triangle invites us to join the movement.We can expect to see orange – and lots of it.

The shimmer wall on the back of the convention center will turn orange, and orange neckties have been sent to television news anchors to wear on-air, said Alexis Davis, charged with creating MS Week community activities. We’re even asked to wear orange to work Monday to show our support. Also planned: a pre-choreographed Flash Mob Dance during tailgating at the Carolina Hurricanes game Thursday night.

‘In like gangbusters’

It didn’t take long for Dannyell, a Knightdale wife and mother of two, to volunteer as a public face of the disease. Now, she’s a co-leader of the Triangle African Americans MS Support Group and participates in the chapter’s speakers bureau.

“I dove in head, feet, and arms first,” Dannyell said. “I went in like gangbusters. That’s my nature. I’m an engineer by trade, so that’s what I do; I solve problems.

“But it wasn’t until I got involved with the society and started to educate myself on the disease as a whole that I realized it wasn’t something I could just fix.”

What she has done is raise awareness, aimed specifically at the African-American community.

“We don’t seek out care like we should; we aren’t proactive,” Dannyell said. “I really want to put a face to MS that looks likes us, sounds like us and resonates in our community.”

Having faced a layoff nine months ago, Dannyell is also advocating for uninsured people, particularly those like her with pre-existing conditions. With reforms not yet reflected in North Carolina, Dannyell said, she’s at the mercy of “people setting things in place who don’t have a full understanding of the ramifications of their choices and their actions.”

Still, she pushes forward.

“I encourage everyone to become an active member of their health care team,” Dannyell said. “In this case, it really does take a village.

“It took me a long time to reconcile that with myself,” she added. “You have to advocate for yourself.”

Dannyell hopes one of her greatest contributions is the awareness gained by her courage to be open about her disease, its progression and her journey. “It becomes a big community that way,” she said.

On April 13, Dannie’s Dolls, her community of friends, family and supporters, will again participate in the annual Triangle MS Walk at PNC Arena.

“It’s important to have a volunteer like Dannyell,” Goff said. “She’s extremely open and willing to talk about her journey. It helps us bring awareness to this disease.

“It helps us serve more people.”