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Former Miss NH advocates for multiple sclerosis research

With her pageant and performing days behind her, Michelle Tolson, 41, is now putting herself in the public eye once more — as an advocate in the fight against multiple sclerosis.

She was diagnosed with the disease last year.

“You either move forward with it, or you let it stop your life,” Tolson said of the disease. “And I’m not going to let it stop my life.”

Tolson, who attended Manchester Memorial High School, was crowned Miss New Hampshire in 1996 and went on to compete in the Miss America pageant, where her talent was tap-dancing. A year later, she put her dancing skills to the ultimate test and auditioned for the world-famous Rockettes dancing troupe at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

“I made it on my first try, which is not usual,” Tolson said. She was a member of the Rockettes from 1997 to 2003, and continued teaching dance in New Hampshire until 2000, when she moved to New Jersey. Tolson also worked as a college professor and coached up-and-coming pageant contestants during her time as a Rockette.

Tolson lives in New York City and works in public relations for Saxon/Hart, a marketing firm that specialized in working with nonprofit organizations, and she continues to teach dance. She also sits on the board of directors for the Rockette Alumnae.

Amid her busy schedule, Tolson said, she started to notice issues with her health. In January 2014, Tolson started experiencing blurred vision in her left eye. Initially, she chalked it up to needing a change to her glasses prescription.

After her ophthalmologist failed to find a problem, Tolson’s doctor sent her to a specialist to be tested for glaucoma or cataracts. When the specialist also didn’t find an issue, the doctor sent Tolson for an MRI of her optic nerve.

“I got a call in February, on a Friday night at 5 o’clock, saying, ’We think you might have MS,’” Tolson said. Her MRI showed lesions in her brain, a telltale sign of the disease. She also learned that a blurry eye is a common first indicator of MS.

After further testing, on St. Patrick’s Day of 2014, Tolson’s neurologist, Dr. Lana Zhovtis of the New York University MS Care Center, confirmed that Tolson had relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.

“And then she dropped the bomb: ’And I think you’ve had it 10 years,’” Tolson said, based on the amount of lesions and scar tissue she had. Zhovtis said that Tolson’s disease had likely stayed at bay for so long due to her active lifestyle.

Despite this, the diagnosis was a blow for Tolson and her husband, TJ Hadley.

“It was devastating,” she said. “I kind of didn’t believe it.”

Tolson’s first course of treatment was a common MS drug that is generally effective at combating the disease. However, six months after being diagnosed, an MRI showed new lesions, which meant the drug was not working.

“For my doctor, that meant being aggressive in my treatment,” Tolson said. “She wants me to continue to dance for the rest of my life.”

Tolson began infusion therapy. At a follow-up appointment last month, she said, her MRI showed no new lesions.

“This medication is working for me,” she said. “We’re very excited about that prognosis right now.”

Zhovtis told Tolson that the infusion therapy should prevent her MS from progressing.

While she has started experiencing fatigue, Tolson said she hasn’t had any major side effects from her MS. And she’s using her good health to be an advocate for research.

“After finding out I had the lesions again, I went public with it on Facebook,” she said. “I really hadn’t told anybody about it, because it had that stigma. I mean, MS, back in the day, meant you were going to be in a wheelchair. And my doctor was like, ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

Zhovtis reached out to the National MS Society to tell them about Tolson, believing she would be a great advocate because of her status as a former Miss New Hampshire Scholarship Pageant winner and Rockette.

“She’s so aggressive and progressive,” Tolson said of her doctor. “She wants me to succeed, and I really appreciate that with her.”

Most recently, Tolson participated in Walk MS in New York City, where she was the kickoff speaker. Tolson said she did the walk “as a celebration of being diagnosed.”

“Most people don’t realize I have MS, because I am one of those lucky ones who doesn’t have a disability in my walk,” she said. “As a former Rockette living with MS, I think most people are shocked. They don’t think it can happen to them. It can happen to anyone. It’s not hereditary; it just is what it is.”

Tolson, who did the walk with a group from her dance studio in New Jersey, said she was inspired by the other MS patients she walked with who were diagnosed years ago.

“They’re in wheelchairs and have to use walkers, because they didn’t have these opportunities and these medications,” she said. “I wanted to raise the money to help with the research, because it’s this research that is helping people like me, that are newly diagnosed, (to) continue to live a life that they lead.”

Tolson’s husband has also taken an active role in advocating for MS, serving as her “PR person,” she said.

“He didn’t want to see my life stop, either,” she said. “It’s hard for caretakers, too, and that’s one side people forget about.”

“I’ve always been her biggest fan,” Hadley said of his wife. “Even when she was diagnosed with MS, that was just another part of her life I tried to support. She’s a really strong woman, and she’s the one that’s been fighting this and dealing with it and taking it to a whole new level.”

As for continuing her advocacy, Tolson said she would like to get involved with lobbying for MS research, and continuing to inspire and empower other MS patients.

“I finally realized that this is a new part of my personality, a new part of my life,” she said. “It doesn’t change who I am; it just adds a new dimension to who I am. I wanted to embrace it and hopefully offer hope.

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by UNIONLEADER.COM
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length


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