Sinn Féin TD Mark Ward is back working at full tilt, with Oireachtas meetings and speaking four times in the Dáil this week, following a debilitating bout of Covid-19 that morphed into Long Covid.
“I’m a lot better this week than I was last. I even feel better today than I felt yesterday,” says the Dublin Mid-West TD, who lives with multiple sclerosis, a disabling autoimmune disease of the brain and spinal cord.
There is no evidence to show that people with MS are more affected by Covid-19 than others. “But it did floor me,” he says. “I was disabled for a week basically before I started coming back to myself.”
His sense of smell and taste have not yet returned, and he has a persistent dry cough, says Ward, who was double vaccinated. “I’m delighted I had the two vaccines, because I might have been in serious trouble.” He got Covid just after finishing an 108km cycle, from Clondalkin to Courtown, to raise funds for a local autism centre.
Ward has created a “bucket list” to help him live with MS, a condition he mentioned almost as an afterthought during a Dáil debate on the impact of Covid-19 on people with disabilities.
He told how he was one of more than 800,000 people living with neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, motor neuron disease and strokes. And MS, which in his case was diagnosed in 2007.
He spoke of the difficulties such people face in getting services, but he did not mention that he got his first MRI scan 14 years ago but only got his second scan about 18 months ago. Then, the consultant could not tell him how far his MS had progressed because the HSE was unable to locate the 2007 scan.
“I should have had scans in between, but it didn’t happen. Appointment after appointment was cancelled by the HSE. Probably because I was feeling well, I wasn’t pushing it as much as I should.”
Ward hopes to have another scan this year, to see how far the MS has progressed, though the disease has moved from dominating his every waking thought to one where he thinks about it only when symptoms arise.
The 46-year-old looks fit and healthy. Life is stable and rewarding, he says, a far cry from the years before he was diagnosed – and for a number of years afterwards.
“I lost jobs, I would have disengaged with family and friends. I suffered with depression, but I didn’t know that at the time and it was only afterwards that I found out that’s what it was,” he says.
He lost his marriage, too. “I kind of distanced myself from [people] because I was afraid of them seeing how afraid I was. And it was a really frightening place to be,” says the father of three.
Symptoms began when he was 27, including involuntary spasms in his arms and intense pins and needles throughout his body. Ward describes it as like walking on a sponge.
The balance problems led to falls and he lost sensation totally in his arms once or twice. “I got a fright and thought I was having a stroke and went to hospital.” He was discharged, having been told he had not had a stroke, but with no diagnosis.
In the most frightening episode, he lost his sight. “I was coming back from the shop. All of a sudden it was like looking through a plastic milk carton – all I could see was white and shapes.”
He sat on a wall, before a neighbour helped him home. His sight recovered and he went to his GP who sent him for an MRI scan, ECG and lumbar puncture after which he was finally diagnosed.
“My first reaction was relief,” he recalls. “But internally I was terrified. I was frightened and fearful for my future and who was going to look after my family and all that kind of stuff.”
Ward was put on medication and had to inject himself every second day, and quite quickly the side effects were worse than the symptoms of MS. “For example, I ended up on a walking stick. If I was going out or even in the house, I had to wear multiple layers on my legs because they were getting so cold I couldn’t manage to walk.”
The strain took a toll, leading to depression. After a while he told his GP he would not continue with medication, but he stresses that MS is different for everyone, and what works for him may not work for others.
He changed his lifestyle, starting with his diet, cutting back on red meat and eating fish. He cut out bread and ate healthy foods such as brown rice. And, slowly, he began exercising seriously.
In time, he decided to run the Dublin Marathon: “I literally started off running from one lamppost and walking to the next and running to the next one. Gradually, I built that up. In 2019 I completed the marathon.
“I wasn’t breaking any records, it was just over six hours but it was probably one of the best achievements of my life,” he says, referencing the times when he could not walk to the shop without a walking stick.
He started working, too, to change his thinking about MS. “My confidence [had been] shattered because of the diagnosis. I went from having multiple sclerosis to me saying: multiple sclerosis has me – and God love it!”
MS did force him to change jobs, though, because he struggled with physical work. Instead, he opted to go to college, studying addiction and behavioural therapy and finally getting a degree in Carlow IT. In between he worked in local addiction centres in his native Clondalkin before getting work as an addiction counsellor.
In 2016 he was co-opted to South Dublin County Council to replace Eoin Ó Broin. Eventually, he won a Dáil byelection seat in Dublin Mid-West in 2019, and has held on to it.
“I don’t think about multiple sclerosis unless I get a symptom. Sometimes I don’t have all the full feeling in my extremities. I burnt my hand the other day because I didn’t take my hand off something hot quick enough. Sometimes I will get a muscle spasm that will lock and I’ll be in pain for probably a day.” The impact of Long Covid on people with neurological conditions will strain the health service, he says.
Reflecting on his diagnosis, he says he has come to terms with it. Everyone’s journey is different. But everyone with MS can live a full life, he believes, even if for him it means living “a Cinderella life: in bed by midnight, and up at seven”.