How one sailing boat is empowering those living with multiple sclerosis

The term smooth sailing doesn’t always apply, especially when faced with rough waters and stormy skies.

But despite any challenges from Mother Nature, the crew of Oceans of Hope will not let anything get in their way, even multiple sclerosis (MS) – a condition that attacks the central nervous system and in some cases can be debilitating.

The Sailing Sclerosis Foundation’s (SSF) project, Oceans of Hope is the first circumnavigation of the world in a sail boat crewed by people living with MS. The project aims to show what is possible when people with a chronic disease are empowered to conquer their individual challenges.

“The idea for this project came after I met a patient who had built a boat to sail around the world. After being diagnosed with MS, he thought his dream was shattered. Through Oceans of Hope we want to show people that MS shouldn’t stop them from achieving their dreams,” says Dr. Mikkel Anthonisien, founder of the SSF. “Since the program’s inception, the number of people involved has grown by leaps and bounds, and they have come to realize their MS doesn’t mean they have to stop doing activities they love; it’s just a question of doing things a bit differently.”

Another unique aspect of the 33,000 nautical mile voyage is that people living with MS are able to be crew members as well at different ports throughout the journey. Seattle resident, Cara Lauer, who was diagnosed with MS four years ago, joined the crew of Oceans of Hope during a stopover in the northeast.

Cara experienced the first signs of MS when she had numbness on the left side of her face after returning from her honeymoon. Although she did not experience other symptoms at that time, Cara still went to her doctor to get it checked out. Initially her doctor wasn’t too concerned, but decided to consult a neurologist who suggested that Cara get an MRI to detect damage to her central nervous system. The MRI confirmed an MS diagnosis and Cara became one of the approximately 400,000 people living with this chronic condition in the U.S. Cara decided that she would face her diagnosis head-on and share the news with her friends and family right away so they could be a part of her much needed support system.

Almost immediately following her diagnosis, Cara got involved with her local MS community and even started a fund-raising bike team. She also currently works on a research project that examines wellness interventions for people living with chronic conditions.

For Cara, joining the crew of Oceans of Hope is a way to boldly embrace the adventure of life instead of fearing an uncertain future. She believes the project’s mission to change perceptions of what it means to live with MS and demonstrate the benefits of a healthy lifestyle align with her personal and professional goals.

“I’m excited to join Dr. Anthonisen and the amazing Oceans of Hope crew because, to me, sailing is a really beautiful metaphor for living with MS,” says Cara. “When I’m sailing, I cannot control the wind or the weather, but I can trim the sail and change course. I’m not in charge of everything – especially my MS – but I do have the tools and support I need to live a happy and healthy life.”

The boat set sail from Copenhagen, Denmark, on June 15, 2014, and will visit approximately 20 ports around the world during its 17-month journey. It arrived in the U.S in Boston on Sept. 8 and will continue its journey along the eastern seaboard this fall including ports in New York City Nov. 11-16 and Ft. Lauderdale Dec. 5-9.

Oceans of Hope will host events at each port to allow as many people as possible to participate in sailing activities. While the boat is in each port, there will be designated days when people living with MS will have the opportunity to sail with the crew. For more information, visit www.sailingsclerosis.org.

Biogen Idec is the principal sponsor and official partner for Oceans of Hope, highlighting one example of the company’s long-standing commitment to the MS community.


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