Lauren had just landed a prestigious job. After studying law and working as a Judge’s Associate in the Supreme Court, she flew to Sydney to start a new role in a top-tier national law firm. The life Lauren had imagined for herself was beginning to unfold. Soon after arriving, however, this journey came to a standstill after Lauren paid a visit to her GP.
“He said I was showing some signs of multiple sclerosis,” Lauren says. “Given I was a young woman, he said he couldn’t put the possibility of MS off the table. To be honest I thought he was crazy. I was doing triathlons, I was working more than full time and I’d just moved to Sydney for a great career opportunity.”
Later, when she lost movement in one of her arms, she knew something was wrong. Lauren was taken straight to the emergency department and was hospitalised for a week.
“That was actually the most challenging experience,” says Lauren. “I’d never spent time in hospital before. I didn’t know what was going to happen and whether I would have to spend my life in this place now.”
While in the emergency department, different specialists told her somewhat conflicting things about her condition – it was a confusing and stressful time. One doctor said she needed to “prepare herself”. Another told her she would have to give up her career as a lawyer. Someone else said she wouldn’t be able to wear high heels again. “I thought that was a strange comment,” Lauren says. “But I’m here now wearing high heels and I continue to wear high heels as a form of rebellion against that particular statement. Whenever I put them on I always think about that.”
Finally, a doctor sat with Lauren and asked her about herself, her career and what she did outside of work. “He was the one who thought Michael Barnett at the Brain and Mind Centre would be the perfect neurologist for me,” Lauren says. “That’s how I got the referral.”
It has now been seven years since Lauren first saw Professor Michael Barnett, a neurologist and multiple sclerosis specialist at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre. He has helped Lauren throughout her journey with MS, from navigating the initial diagnosis to treatment and ongoing management. His clinic is the only MS facility in Australia that is based within a university, and therefore integrated with the latest research. In fact, 70 percent of his patients take part in research studies. In doing so, they directly inform new approaches to MS and drive fresh discoveries.
“The thing with MS is, if you stop it when you’re young, you don’t have that damage going forward,” says Lauren. “So it’s been really important to get in early and stop it in its tracks and that’s exactly what Michael did for me.”
Lauren has not had any relapses or degeneration so far.
What I appreciate about seeing Michael is knowing that he is very much involved in the research – he’s at the forefront of it – so he really knows what’s going on. He’s across all of the new medications. And the new generation of MS drugs has changed so much.
However, it was a difficult time for Lauren when she first began working with Michael. As is often the case, she was put on frontline medication, but after a few months, it stopped working. She had to change medications, which is a daunting prospect for anyone faced with chronic illness.
Lauren immersed herself in reading about MS treatments and possible side effects. “Michael and I had to make a decision on what was next,” she says. “That was quite a tough scenario because at the time, the medication I was thinking about taking had certain risks and side effects that were quite scary for someone at the age of 25 to contemplate.”
What set Michael apart from other specialists was that he saw Lauren as an equal and a partner in her treatment. “He really talked me through all the options,” she says. “He told me all the potential risks and benefits of certain medications in a sensible way. He told me his opinion but ultimately he treated me as another professional who could make their own decision.”
Lauren also knew Michael didn’t just treat his patients – he was committed to finding the best treatments possible. This gave her the confidence to trust his advice.
“What I appreciate about seeing Michael is knowing that he is very much involved in the research – he’s at the forefront of it – so he really knows what’s going on. He’s across all of the new medications. And the new generation of MS drugs has changed so much.”
Together, Lauren and Michael, patient and doctor, decided to shift onto a different medication, one that Lauren is still using today. “It’s worked wonders,” she says. “Since taking it, they’ve also figured out how to know whether you as an individual have particular risks and luckily I’ve come up in a very low category for side effects.”
When Lauren first came to see Michael, she was a career-driven 25-year-old who had just graduated university with first-class honours. “All I knew at that point, to be honest, was that my career really mattered to me. That was my focus at the time. And he really took that on board, he always has,” she says.
“My main question for Michael in the beginning was, ‘Can I still be a lawyer?’ and I remember him saying, ‘Well, do you want to be a lawyer? Because if you want to be a lawyer, you can be!’
“It’s a narrative Michael has always had with me: ‘You’ll manage this, you’ll have a career and a life, as you wanted. Maybe with a few more challenges along the way but you’ll be able to achieve all of those things.’ I shouldn’t give up on those dreams. That’s always been the narrative from the very beginning.”
“I’ve gone on to have a career beyond what I ever dreamed in my ‘pre-MS life’. I took a path less travelled and followed my dreams of becoming an academic lawyer. I’m now an academic at one of Australia’s top law schools, and in the last two years have been invited to present my cutting edge legal research at universities in the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland, as well as all around Australia.”
“As I sit in airports around the world, I often think of my MS diagnosis as a pivotal point in shaping who I am, and who I will become. I know Michael and the Brain and Mind Centre will be part of that journey and be proud of me. In fact, on my fifth MS ‘anniversary’ I sent Michael a postcard from where I had just finished presenting at a conference in Norway, noting that I was about to spend a week kayaking in the Norwegian fjords!”
“MS diagnosis and treatment has moved so quickly in the past decade that it’s hard to keep up. It’s important for the community to realise it has changed a lot and it’s because of people like Michael Barnett who are at the forefront of the research that we have the opportunity to live normal lives and have the same dreams as everyone else.”