Educator defies disease

November 22, 2004|by SCOTT BUTKI

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Larry Smith, an educator for Washington County Public Schools, lives by two principles: He will do all he can to help students and he won't let a disease stop him.

Smith, 39, of Cumberland, Md., was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in January, while he was principal of Hickory Elementary School.

"I have MS, but MS does not have me. I refuse to let MS shape my destiny," Smith said last week. "This is a curveball, but this is not a strikeout."

Smith has worked as a teacher, assistant principal and principal in local school systems. As the manager of staff development for testing and accountability, he works with all of the public schools in Washington County.


One day in January, there was "a severe and painful numbness in my feet tantamount to pins and needles," he said. As his body attacked itself, the lower portion of his legs and hands were numb, he said. Smith described the numbness at one point this way: "Like a sensation of your feet being asleep, multiplied by a thousand."

Over the next few days, the symptoms got worse. He went to a neurologist, who did tests, including a spinal tap, and concluded that he has MS, which in his case involved having multiple lesions in his brain and spinal cord, Smith said.

He continued working as a principal and did not take time off to deal with the problem until May, and that was because the medication fighting the disease was causing him to have vision problems in his left eye, Smith said.

His MS is in remission and the only impact he has to worry about regularly are extremes in temperature that spark an acute sense of numbness in his feet, Smith said.

In interviews Sunday, his colleagues at Hancock Middle-Senior High School praised him.

"I have never met an administrator like him. He has been the hardest-working administrator I have ever seen," said Chlorous Little, a language arts teacher. It was not unusual for him to work 80- to 90-hour weeks, she said.

Past and current students at the school ask about him and many have called him and sent cards, Smith said.

"He has always loved kids," Principal Warren Barrett said Sunday. "They respect him because he gives them respect."

When Smith comes to the school, as he does from time to time, students and teachers stop to ask how he is, Barrett said.

Barrett described Smith as a fighter, perhaps an apt description for a man who gets up at 4 a.m. every day and is in the best condition he has ever been in, stronger even than when he was on the track team in high school.

"MS has ignited in me a fervent belief that we can overcome anything," he said.

In his case, that includes overcoming the needle, he said.

While he said he has been strong in fighting MS and the pain it inflicted on his body before going into remission, starting the ritual of self-injection of medication via a needle was difficult, he said.

A nurse came over the first time he was to give himself the injection, he said. She showed him how to do it and waited for him to get ready and do it, he said. After four hours he asked if she could come back the next day instead and it was then that he began the self-injections he will need to do at least three times a week for the rest of his life, unless a cure is found, he said.

Smith said he was initially uncomfortable telling people he has MS, but after educating himself, he saw people in every profession have MS and live regular lives.

"I want people to know that people who have MS are normal, productive people," he said.

He is concerned people treat those with MS, including him, as being different when they are not, he said.

The experience, he said, "has increased his understanding of our responsibility to reach out to everyone and to allow others to reach out to me."

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