Body & Fitness

MS bride’s walk of courage

Illness wasn’t going to stop this Kiwi couple from having a dream wedding.

As Erin Bell heard the words “in sickness and in health”, she was opposite her soulmate in a brilliant white wedding dress surrounded by Queenstown’s snow-capped mountains.

Throughout their wedding ceremony, Erin’s gait was the only indicator of the true sickness the vows alluded to.

The 30-year-old suffers from an illness that threatened to stop her from walking down the aisle.

When an MRI four years ago showed Erin had advanced stages of multiple sclerosis, her neurologist said if he’d only seen the scan – and not Erin standing in front of him – he’d assume its subject was already wheelchair-bound.

The threat of that fate looms over her, but she’s determined that it won’t hold her back.

In June, the US-born, half-Kiwi IT analyst had her dream wedding to Robert Bell, her partner of eight years.

“I wasn’t even considering getting married if I couldn’t stand up and walk,” she says. “When I got diagnosed, I thought, ‘My life is over.’ I guessed I could kiss having kids and getting married goodbye.”

Despite the seriousness of her illness, Erin swiftly stopped that train of thought.

Forty-five minutes after her diagnosis, while self-described “softie” Robert (29) was still bawling, she went back to work.

“I thought, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well keep going.’”

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disorder of the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. The name of the illness refers to areas of scarring (sclerosis), which occur throughout the brain and spinal cord, and are signs of nerve damage. These cause a variety of symptoms.

Erin has relapsing-remitting MS, which affects her day-to- day life.

“My hands and feet are always numb to a degree, it goes up and down, but it never goes away,” she tells.

Numbness was one of the signs that first alerted Erin, who was in her early 20s and studying in Auckland, that there might be something wrong.

Her vision suffered when she looked to her right, she felt fatigued, had back pain and coordination issues, and at one point, went numb from her chest down to her toes.

“I kind of kept it to myself for a while, thinking it would just go away,” she recalls.

Erin’s symptoms have never disappeared – the existing lesions throughout her spine and brain remain, but since taking medication after her diagnosis, she hasn’t developed any new ones. But there’s no guarantee her medication will be effective forever.

That, Erin and Robert say, is typical of life with MS.

“It’s like you’re going down a hill and there’s a bottom, but you don’t know where the bottom is,” explains Robert. “You could hit it next week or never. All you know is you’re going downhill.”

And that uncertainty has influenced the pair’s approach to life together.

“I’ve been trying to make the most of my life now because I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to walk,” says Erin. “You just don’t know, so we’re going to do everything we can.”

That included holding the Queenstown wedding Erin always wanted. The pair wed at Deer Park Heights, with their guests arriving by helicopter.

“The look on Robert’s face and the love in his eyes when he first saw me was unforgettable,” tells Erin. “He was teary-eyed.”

When she was initially diagnosed, Erin didn’t think Robert would stay with her.

“We were in our early twenties,” she explains. “You don’t think somebody’s going to want to deal with that.”

But even back then, years before they wed, Robert said, “This is ‘til death do us part.”

The dispatch coordinator can tell when she’s putting on a brave face.

“She’s in a lot of pain from the photo shoot right now, but she wouldn’t say.”

As for what’s ahead, there’s little doubt children will feature.

“That’s what’s next,” Erin smiles, “trying to build a family.”

She intends to temporarily stop her medication while they try for a baby, but knows it could result in a relapse of her MS.

But with Robert by her side, she’s ready to take on whatever life throws her way.

Words: Georgia Moselen-Sloog

WATCH: Actress Jamie Lynn Sigler reveals her battle with MS

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