Going to frat parties, dating, and studying for a career in hospital administration were Leah Quartano-Bowling's top priorities, so much so that, at first, the 21-year-old college student barely noticed the tingling in her hands and feet. But as the tingling grew into numbness and took over more of her body, she found it harder to ignore. Eventually, when she found herself so exhausted that she had to sleep 18 hours a day, she knew she had a serious problem.
Six weeks of doctor appointments and tests later, she had her answer: The bright, young beauty with everything in front of her was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease known for stealing futures. But that's not the end of her story. It's just the beginning.
"At first, I was so angry — angry at God, at the universe, at my own body — it just felt so unfair," she says. "All I wanted to do was hang with friends, but I had to stay in every night, get painful injections every other day and go to bed early."
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack the myelin sheaths on the outside of nerves, forming lesions that cause serious neuromuscular problems. Its toll quickly went beyond Quartano-Bowling's social life. Instead of a lucrative-but-intense hospital job, she had to find a low-key career that could accommodate all of her flare-ups and treatments. Instead of rocking a bikini on the beach, she covered up to hide the wounds left from the constant injections. Instead of being able to date casually, she had to go into every meetup with the knowledge she had an incurable, life-altering illness hanging over her head.
At the time she was diagnosed, she'd just started dating a cute med student. "It was all so new," she says. "I didn't know how to tell people about MS. So even though we'd only been on three dates, I just blurted it out. His reaction — he was almost speechless, just saying, 'I'm so sorry' over and over again — was my first indication this really was a big deal."
"Dating with MS was just awkward," she says. "You can't tell I'm sick just from looking at me." And even though she looked fine, she wasn't fine. Her illness presented serious obstacles in every aspect of a relationship — from small things, such as what kind of activities she could do, to big things, such as whether or not she'd ever be able to have children.
Eventually, her worst fears were confirmed when a close guy friend sat her down and told her: "Look, guys don't want to date you because you have MS. You need to face that and stop being so naïve." (Harsh much?)
The conversation was devastating, Quartano-Bowling says, and only reinforced her deepest fear: that at just 23 years old, she was "damaged goods," and no one would ever love her. But as she thought about what her friend had said, she realized she had a choice. She could continue living her life in fear of MS and trying to hide it, or she could face it, even embrace it. She chose the latter.
"I came to realize that this is what I was meant to be," she says. "I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing, and this isn't my backup life. I'm not living plan B, and I'm not going to waste any more time thinking about what should have been."
So she picked herself up, moved to a different state and started a new career in enterprise software development — a job that offered her both the flexibility her illness requires and work she's passionate about. She also decided to take better care of herself physically, spiritually and emotionally, delving into daily Pilates and yoga practices and honing her golf game.
As she thrived in her new life, she met a new man — one who wasn't scared at all by her illness. Brandon Bowling fell so in love with Quartano-Bowling that, after just one month of dating, he even offered to follow her when she decided to move to New Orleans.
During this time, she was chosen to be one of the first MS patients to try out a new treatment called Lemtrada. Instead of never-ending shots of interferon (the standard treatment for MS), she got two five-day treatments spaced a year apart — and that is it. She describes the Lemtrada as a "reset button" for her immune system, and now her MS is in remission, hopefully for the rest of her life.
Brandon and Leah recently wed. Now, at 28 years old, Quartano-Bowling is a newlywed looking to buy a new house to fit the large family she and her husband hope to have together. In the past, due to the grueling regimen of toxic medications, having kids was just a dream, but now it feels like her dream could soon be a reality.
"I definitely have fears — our kids will be more likely to get MS, as it seems to run in families — but I want a litter of them!" she says.
Her life isn't perfect, and she still has symptoms from her existing MS lesions, but she says she wouldn't change a thing. "I see it all as a blessing," she says. "A disease like MS shifts your whole life dramatically, but it also shows you what you're capable of. I would never have had the experiences I've had or met the people I did (like Brandon), and now I feel confident that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be, living the life I'm supposed to live."
And that's the most beautiful thing of all.
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