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Support system sustains Wakely in fight against MS

Chris Wakely

One morning five years ago, Lehigh men’s lacrosse coach Chris Wakely awoke with the right side of his face inflamed, the vision in his right eye blurry, and his speech slurred.

He called his family doctor, who examined Wakely and recommended an MRI and that he schedule an appointment with a Lehigh Valley area neurologist.

“No biggie, I thought, I’ll go to the neurologist, he’ll prescribe some medication, the symptoms will go away and I’ll go on with life,” Wakely recalls.

At the time, Wakely was leading the picture-perfect life. He was married to Danielle, the love of his life, who he met when both worked in admissions at Widener University in Chester, Pa. They had a 5-year-old son, Jack, and were about to have their second child. Plus, he was coaching lacrosse—a sport that had been his passion growing up on Long Island and enabled him to go to a top-notch university (the University of Virginia).

But then everything changed when the neurologist spun around in his office chair and blurted out, “So, I guess you’re here to talk about your MS.” In an instant, a doctor uttering the 13th letter of alphabet (M), followed by 19th letter (S), changed everything.

“Needless to say, I was stunned,” Wakely says. “But I quickly realized that I was not alone, in two ways. One, there are hundred of thousands of people in this country who suffer from MS. And over time, I learned that I have a tremendous support system.”

That support system—which includes virtually everyone in Lehigh’s athletics department, led by Roseann Corsi and members of Lehigh’s C.O.A.C.H. program—is responsible for two days’ worth of upcoming April events to raise money and awareness. To learn more about those events, read
“Lehigh University and Nitschmann Middle School team up to fight MS.”
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In people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), infection-fighting white blood cells attack the protective myelin covering that insulates nerve fibers in the brain, spinal cord and eyes. Like broken electrical cables, the inflamed myelin—and eventually, nerves—become unable to conduct the brain’s signals. This can cause impaired vision, numbness and even paralysis. Wakely currently experiences constant numbness in his hands and his feet.

An integral aspect of lifestyle management of MS, Wakely says, is avoiding or minimizing certain conditions that tend to have an adverse affect on MS symptoms. In Wakely’s case, high levels of continual stress, fatigue, certain types of foods, and even hot showers were triggers, so he’s had to make significant lifestyle changes—the hardest being stepping down as Lehigh’s men’s lacrosse coach following the completion of last season after realizing that the stressful life of a college lacrosse coach was in direct conflict with a lifestyle that is most compatible with MS.

“He never blinked”

Once Wakely and his wife, Danielle, decided that it was in his best interest to step down last June, he went to visit the man who hired him: Joe Sterrett, the Murray H. Goodman Dean of Athletics.

“I was worried about how I would break the news to Joe, but Joe was amazing. He never blinked,” Wakely says. “He immediately wanted to know what I wanted to do next and was clear that he wanted me to remain a part of the Lehigh family.

“I remember quite vividly the day Chris told me,” recalls Sterrett. “It was after the spring 2007 season, on a weekend, late in the morning and Chris and his wife, Danielle, came to the office to visit with me. The news was quite a surprise, to say the least. My reactions were to ask how they were doing, and then how he imagined spending the post-coaching phase of his life.

“We determined that morning that we would work something out (at Lehigh) that would be meaningful, valuable, and rewarding for all.”

In his new role as recruitment director, Wakely utilizes a number of the skills that he’s acquired over the years—his knowledge of admissions from his days at Widener, his mentoring of student-athlete skills from his years of coaching, and his athletic administrative skills honed during his days as an assistant athletic director at Widener.

“Coaches gain extraordinary experiential training through their work and that training can be and has often been very effectively applied to jobs other than coaching,” Sterrett says. “Chris is very talented, as his work this year has demonstrated.”

Making his transition from coaching into athletic administration much easier is the fact that Kevin Cassese, the new lacrosse coach, has made great efforts to keep Wakely engaged in the program.

"Kevin really has demonstrated that he is mature beyond his years and has been extremely creative in finding ways to have me remain a part of the program," says Wakely. " The transition away from coaching and into an administrative role has been easier then expected because of Kevin, his staff, and the student-athletes of the men's lacrosse program."

The Lehigh athletics community demonstrated its affection for Wakely by creating the position for him and by creating the two days of events—in conjunction with Nitschmann Middle School—to help battle MS.

“I'm not at all surprised by the responsiveness of our community,” Sterrett says. “It's what I have come to expect. This is a special place, a supportive place, a caring place. I'm proud of how our athletics community has rallied around this cause and know that the entire experience has been a great learning opportunity for many.”

“Lehigh has really shown its true colors”

In recent years, dramatic strides in managing and slowing MS have been made. Today, a half-dozen drugs are approved to decrease the periodic immune attacks that underlie the disabling disease, another six are in the final human testing phase, and dozens more are in development. Researchers have also zeroed in on genetic and environmental risk factors; a common virus may play a role in provoking the immune system to attack nerves in the brain and spinal cord.

The ultimate goals for MS researchers—either regrowing damaged nerves or creating MS drugs that are powerful enough to suppress the immune system and allow the system to reboot like a computer refreshed with a clean slate—no longer seem like pipe dreams.

“I think a regeneration process may be available in the next five or 10 years,” Abdolmohammad Rostami, chair of neurology at Thomas Jefferson University and part of a research team that has already been able to partially reverse nerve damage in mice, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I’m very optimistic.”

Wakely, too, is optimistic—for two reasons: the research strides that have been made and the level of support that he’s received over the past five years.

“Researchers have learned more about MS in the past 10 years than in the 50 years before that and I’m confident that the advances will continue,” Wakely says. “Obviously, the support of friends, family and colleagues has been very touching for Danielle and I. Lehigh has really shown its true colors with the manner in which everyone has provided their support.

“Danielle has been a tremendous source of strength for me, as she is the single most resilient individual I have ever met. My mother Geraldine Wakely and siblings Gerianne, Jimmy, and Patricia, have gone above and beyond to encourage and support.

“I once heard a coach say, ‘When the chips are down, 90 percent of the people you can rely on live under your roof.’ I believe this to be true and I am blessed with a strong family, but I have learned there are so many individuals willing and able to help if only given a reason.”

Story by Bill Doherty

Posted on Friday, April 04, 2008

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