Living life to the fullest with Multiple Sclerosis


Taupō man Russell Watts tells his story of living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

“My MS is story is complex as I suffered a traumatic brain injury 12 months prior to my MS diagnosis in a motorcycle accident.

"My TBI is confounded by cumulative concussions from numerous previous accidents - both sporting and motor vehicle accidents. I had been assessed as unable to return to my career (chartered accountancy) and any other employment because of unresolved cognitive issues from my TBI.

“During those 12 months I was under the care of the Turitea Psychology/Concussion Clinic at Massey University (Palmerston North).

“After my left side physical injuries healed, I was encouraged to undertake physical exercise as a therapeutic treatment and was part of a worldwide research study.

“Initially, I walked daily, then progressed to running, eventually competing in 5km, 10km, and half marathons (often finishing within the fastest runners).

“A friend then encouraged me to re-learn biking and lent me his road bike. Eventually, I was running and road riding long distances daily (to fill in my day).

“My friend encouraged me to attend a duathlon (run/bike/run). I was competitive winning the veterans class.

“Later, I became a member of the local triathlon club.

“I decided to re-learn how to swim (with difficulty due to dizziness, balance, shoulder injury, etc) from which I was able to compete in triathlon (swim, bike run).

“I became the Tri Club Champ in my age group (veteran). The tri club recognised I had potential, and organised for a Triathlon NZ medical assessment where I was classified as para-tri.

“I continued to compete in triathlon becoming NZ National Champion (para-triathlon). My race finishing times qualified for me to represent NZ at the world championships.

“I have represented NZ as a para-athlete in both duathlon and triathlon at three elite world champs, coming 4th each time.

“Despite my injuries and MS, I have also represented NZ in my age group (50-55 years) in long distance triathlon.

“I was 44 when I was diagnosed and I had been active all my life. My core sport was off-road motorcycling (non-competitive trail riding, and competitive cross country and enduro racing to a national level).

“Since my TBI and MS my sporting interests have changed to multisport (duathlon, triathlon, Ironman, and Coast to Coast).

“I train virtually daily doing a programme involving running, mountain running, swimming (squad twice a week), road biking, MTB, kayaking, and dog walking.

“I have also joined the Taupō Tramping Club.

“I can no longer race motorbikes but I’ve taken part in cycling races such as the Lake Taupō Cycle Challenge.

“The year I was diagnosed was psychologically and emotionally horrific for both myself and my family.

“Without any expectation my organised life, goals, security (career) and health was destroyed.

“I had suffered a TBI, with left side physical injuries, lost my career and job, lost my father and mother-in-law to illnesses, and to top it all off I was diagnosed with MS (an unpredictable chronic illness).

“The official diagnosis being given to me on my birthday. Let's just say that when my MS diagnosis was confirmed, I felt that my circumstances could not get any worse.

“I was already dealing with the outcomes of despair and disappointment from my TBI, so MS was added to the pile in my grieving process of trying to understand and emotionally dealing with the 'new me'.

“During the previous year, I had come to the place where I knew I had to fight on and explore what I was able to make of my life as the 'new me'.

“I had already hit my low point sitting at home injured, looking out the house window, waiting for recovery, getting depressed and frustrated (cabin fever), dealing with feelings of uncertainty, and thinking unhelpful downward spiralling thoughts.

“I didn’t know what my future held, especially my health, but I felt I needed to strive to get active again and see what I could achieve in my present circumstances.

“To use it, before you lose it. This sounds simple but in reality this was a massive and traumatic process for me. It takes time.

“Luckily, I have a very supportive wife and family.

“For me sport, keeps me fit and active, it provides my social connection with society, and keeps me focused, gives me goals and purpose, which is very important to me given I can no longer work.

“I use training sessions to freshen myself once I become cognitively fatigued. Endorphins from exercise seems to be a natural remedy to freshen my fatigued mind.

“My involvement in multisport was not planned. I simply took advantage of an opportunity and that evolved into an avenue that has given me a quality of life.

“Fortunately, I currently enjoy little physical impairment. My impairment is mainly cognitive (memory, and some very minor or left sided leg sensations).

“I also have other interests, like gardening and woodwork projects. I also try to keep my brain active, so use investing in the finance market as my avenue. This capitalises on my accounting skills and natural abilities understanding business and finance markets, and provides a wider world view and perspective.

“Until a few weeks ago, I had a dog for companionship and a training mate. I found my dog to be hugely beneficial to my lifestyle.

“My quality of life remains intact and mostly enjoyable. Functionally, I do the best I can on a daily basis and make the most of any opportunity while I still can.

“With MS my future has a high degree of uncertainty concerning the degree of potential future disablement.

“So, while I remain capable of undertaking physical activity (inclusive of endurance sport), I will for my own personal satisfaction do my physical activities. 

“Physical activity has always been an important aspect to my life.  This provides me an ingredient to having a quality of life. 

“I also like to believe that my fitness gives me the chance of a better outcome and resilience against the progression of disablement from MS. 

“I therefore try to be careful about my lifestyle choices, in regards to medication, healthy diet, fitness, sleep, stress avoidance, etc.

“I have always enjoyed the outdoors and natural environment. I find being outdoors, exploring nature and appreciating the scenic landscape as therapeutic and settling.

“When people learn I have MS they are very surprised as they are unaware of any signs of disablement.

“Everyone will experience things differently. My MS story will be different to your MS story.

“In hindsight, my accident and the MS diagnosis, required a process of understanding what has happened, undertaking a personal 'stock take', exploring opportunities, re-calibrating interests, hobbies, sport and the way you conduct life."

To learn more about Multiple Sclerosis click here