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Living with multiple sclerosis on-farm: 'It doesn’t stop you doing things – it just makes you do them differently'

After being told she had multiple sclerosis, Emily Padfield was even more determined to live her life to the full. Emily Cole went to meet the young farmer.

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Life as a farmer with MS

By her own admission, living with multiple sclerosis is living with an invisible disease.

 

Emily Padfield, a 35-year-old farmer from Warwickshire, says: “Most people don’t realise there is anything wrong with me, because outwardly you would never know.”

 

Having just emerged from 12-hour plus days lambing, she is also an agricultural journalist, often getting up at 4am to put the finishing touches to articles.

 

But appearances can be deceiving as, alongside her long hours, she suffers from MS, a neurological disease which affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord.

 

MS affects around 100,000 people in the UK and each individual is affected differently. But thanks to a recent awareness campaign by the MS Trust, the condition has been in the spotlight and sufferers are made to feel they are not alone.

 

The wide range of symptoms vary from person to person, and for each individual from day to day. At the time of diagnosis, the most common symptoms include fatigue, stumbling, unusual feelings in the skin such as tingling, slowed thinking and problems with eyesight.

 

“I was lucky, because I was diagnosed very early, when I was just 22,” says Emily.

 

“I was working for the NFU in Brussels and I’d been to a Hunt Ball in Ireland, where I had fallen over on the dance floor.

 

“When I got back to the city I started to notice tingling in my legs when I moved my neck as I walked. I assumed I’d put my hip out.

 

“I visited a specialist and had brain and spinal scans. Just one week later I was told I had MS. I didn’t even know what it was.”

Diagnosis

 

The exact cause of MS is unknown, but it is thought, in part, to be down to the immune system mistakingly attacking myelin, the protective coating around nerves, meaning messages don’t get passed along as efficiently as they should, if at all.

 

Upon receiving her diagnosis, Emily made the decision to return to England to be with her family.

 

“I decided to take a lambing job in Sussex. My mum thought I was mad, but I had to prove to myself this wasn’t the end,” she reveals.

 

“I needed to prove, more to myself than anyone else, that I could still do 12-hour days and work harder than anyone else.

 

“I was fairly pragmatic and stopped reading about it on the internet, as I knew it wouldn’t help.

“But it did change my aspirations, at least at the beginning, as I had wanted to be a farm manager and thought I’d no longer be able to.

 

“If I’m honest, it took me two years of running from it to come to terms with the diagnosis.”

 

She met her partner Mark Warner, a farmer based near Southam, Warwickshire, in 2011 and has been working with him ever since.

 

“I manage the MS really well, but maybe that’s my spirit. I hate to be doing less than everyone else,” she says.

 

“I try to lead by example and put in as many hours as everyone, but I know there will come a time when I can’t do that any more.”

 

 

Management

 

Emily’s hands bear the brunt of her condition, often becoming hot, tingly and painful, forcing her to take medication for nerve pain. She also injects daily with a disease modifying therapy called Copaxone.

 

“My fatigue has to be managed carefully, and some days I look at tasks and wonder how I’m going to get through it,” she admits.

 

“But you do. Mark is great. He notices if I sidestep, or if I reach for something that’s not there. I lose my words all the time and, for me as a writer, that’s actually the saddest thing.

 

“In a way, manual work on the farm is often easier than mental work. If you give me a choice
between mucking out pens, wrestling a sheep or writing an article, I will always choose the manual job.”

 

Having a partner who understands her condition and encourages her to rest when necessary has proved vital for Emily. Stress and tiredness exacerbate MS symptoms, so Mark keeps a close eye on her.

 

“Emily can be as fit as a fiddle at times, but when she’s not, she needs to stop for a period of time to reboot. If she doesn’t, then her symptoms get worse,” says Mark.

 

Farming actually helps Emily manage her MS. Working outside gives her a daily dose of vitamin D, which is vital for those suffering from the disease.

 

“Being busy is the best thing for MS, unless it starts to push you over the top,” she says. “If you’re not busy, you dwell on it.”

 

Adopting a positive mental attitude and trying new treatments is something Emily is passionate about. Since her diagnosis, she has taken part in numerous trials through her hospital, from new drugs to cutting out food groups.

 

“The diet was basically vegan, but with fish permitted,” she says. “I did it for four months and I did have more energy, but in the end it didn’t suit our lifestyle. The last thing you want when you’re getting fish and chips is to be stressing about the batter.

 

“For a while I did yoga too, but there’s no time when you’re farming. Obviously I can’t go at 7pm if there are lambs to be fed.”

 

The damage caused by MS cannot be reversed, so treatment focuses on preventing further myelination.

 

“You can’t fix what has already happened,” Emily adds. “But you can try to stop it from getting worse.

 

“I do the trials because I hope one day I will stumble on something amazing and will be first in the queue. What have I got to lose?”

 

This approach has spilled into every aspect of her life, making Emily determined to use her time wisely and live her life to the full.

 

“It doesn’t stop you doing things – it just makes you do them differently,” she says.

 

“When I go horse riding I fall off a lot, but I refuse to stop. My friend bought me stirrups which prevent my legs from getting too tired. There are always ways round things.”

 

Treatments

 

Although Emily has tried many treatments on the NHS, she is now considering drastic action to stop the disease progressing.

 

HSCT, or haematopoietic stem cell transplantation, is an intensive chemotherapy treatment which wipes out the patient’s immune system before regrowing it using stem cells. This promising but aggressive treatment is only available to people who meet very specific criteria on the NHS. Many sufferers, including the BBC’s Caroline Wyatt, are paying for the treatment privately in countries such as Mexico.

 

“It’s supposed to have an 80 per cent chance or reducing relapses, which is significantly more than any of the other treatments offered by the NHS,” Emily says.

 

“The sooner you have it and the fewer symptoms you have, the better the results. If I could stay at this point with my MS for the rest of my life, that would be manageable.”

 

If Emily doesn’t fit the criteria for treatment on the NHS, it could cost as much £50,000 abroad. But for Mark, the decision is easy.

 

“If the effects last 10 years, then it works out at £5,000 a year,” he says. “It’s a lot of money, and for most people it would be out of their reach. But for me it’s simple. I think: ‘Shall I have a new tractor, or make Emily better?’

 

“I’m not sure my bank manager would approve, but for me there’s no question.”

 

More information For more about MS, the MS Trust or the MS Society, visit www.mstrust.org.uk or www.mssociety.org.uk

Facts about MS

  • It is three times more common in women than in men
  • Most people are diagnosed in their 20s and 30s.
  • MS varies from person to person, but it is divided into three main types: relapsing remitting (the most common), secondary progressive MS and primary progressive MS
  • There is no cure for MS. Disease modifying drugs reduce relapse rates, but the damage cannot currently be reversed
  • The cause of MS is not known. It is not believed to be genetic. It is less common in tropical countries near the equator and there is more and more evidence that low levels of vitamin D could be a factor
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