May 27, 2023

One patient’s journey with multiple sclerosis — thanks to a provider who was willing to take a second look.

At age 27, Shelby Haskins James started experiencing double vision. She attributed the change to having new contact lenses. But as the days wore on, her toes and feet went numb. Eventually, balance issues cropped up, and she was stumbling frequently. As the weeks progressed, the left side of her face went numb. And a few days later, nearly her entire lower body went numb and she could hardly walk. Diagnosing multiple sclerosis is complicated because its symptoms can vary and mimic other neurological conditions.

“I felt like my body just got hit by a train,” she recalled. A friend took her to a hospital, where she remained for six days. But, despite a litany of tests, doctors couldn’t figure out the cause of her symptoms. After her discharge, she could only walk with the use of a cane.

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Fast-moving MS symptoms and feeling hopeless

“My body was just betraying me, and I couldn’t do what I needed to with my kids,” Haskins James said. “I could hardly walk or take a shower by myself. My life had just been completely flipped upside down overnight. And I had no clue what was going on.”

She knew doctors wanted to help her, but they weren’t having any success.

“I kept being brushed off to somebody else because it wasn’t a normal case,” she said.

Getting to the correct diagnosis of multiple sclerosis

Eventually, a doctor — after reviewing Haskins James’ tests — referred her to Dr. Stephanie Taylor, a neurologist at the Vanderbilt Multiple Sclerosis Center.

“She said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. But I’m going to find out.’ She was the first doctor who didn’t brush me off.”

“The thing that really gave me some more hope and why I will forever be thankful for Dr. Taylor in the MS clinic is that she said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. But I’m going to find out.’ She was the first doctor who didn’t brush me off,” Haskins James said.

At the Vanderbilt Multiple Sclerosis Center, Haskins James underwent more testing.

“Her exam had clearly supported that this looked like multiple sclerosis with spinal cord involvement,” Taylor said. “But her MRIs just hadn’t fit. It wasn’t until we repeated imaging and got a better quality MRI of her spine that we were able to make that diagnosis for her.”

Haskins James remembered Taylor telling her, “This thing hit you hard. I want to hit it back even harder.” And Haskins James was on board with the plan.

Starting a high-level MS treatment

Taylor immediately put Haskins James on a high-level MS treatment plan that has helped prevent progression of the disease. Haskins James began her treatment in fall 2020. She’s been getting twice-a-year intravenous (IV) infusions of Ocrelizumab, sold under the brand name Ocrevus. And she takes two oral medications daily for nerve pain.

Living a full life with multiple sclerosis

“I am doing really well,” she said. “My MS is in remission, so it’s not currently active. It’s not causing any more damage. The treatment is not going to fix the damage that’s already been done, but the goal is to not have any new damage.”

“The combination of her lifestyle, an accurate diagnosis, and highly effective therapy has put her in a really great position.”

“She really hasn’t had a relapse, and she’s done incredibly well,” Taylor added.

Taylor partially attributes Haskins James’ treatment results to her determination and positive outlook.

“She’s been incredibly compliant with her treatment,” Taylor said. “She’s made all the lifestyle changes with diet and exercise. She is not going to let something like this stop her. So the combination of her lifestyle, an accurate diagnosis, and highly effective therapy has put her in a really great position.”

Haskins James had accepted that she would probably need to walk with a cane for the rest of her life.

“I thought, ‘Alright, this is my new body, so how am I going to figure out how to work with it?’” she recalled. So she asked Taylor if she could get back to participating in martial arts, and Taylor gave her the all-clear. “I pushed and fought like hell,” Haskins James said. “And when I saw her for a follow-up in three-and-a-half months, I walked into her office without a cane.”

Now Taylor uses Haskins James’ images as an example when she’s teaching residents. “When images look normal but the exam is concerning, you really need to press and sometimes repeat an MRI because something can be missed,” Taylor said. “We could clearly see it when we repeated her images. So it really changed her whole diagnosis and the whole way we approached things for her.”

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Vanderbilt Health’s Multiple Sclerosis Center evaluates and treats adults and children with multiple sclerosis and similar conditions.

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