Walking for Change

Sophomore Alexa Swanson and her father Eric Swanson have been involved in Walk MS since it began in Midland. Alexa’s grandfather, Richard, died of Multiple Sclerosis before she was born, but inspires her to support others suffering from MS through participating in the annual walk event. Opinion Editor Kelly Craig | Staff Writer Megan Shaffer


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The Swansons pose with an illustration of Richard made by a friend of the latter’s. The drawing was one of few things that survived a basement flood in June of 2017. Photo: Maureen Aloff

 

For sophomore Alexa Swanson, her father Eric is an important figure in her life, with him coaching her on sports teams and spending quality time together by seeing movies and getting breakfast. However, one thing that particularly strengthens their bond is their involvement in the Walk MS event in Midland every year.
The walk serves to fundraise research and raise awareness for Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease that causes the immune system to attack the protective layer on nerves. This walk is an annual tradition for the Swansons. Eric, a founding member of the walk, alongside member of the Dow Walk Team Helen Myers, has participated in the 3 mile walk for the 13 years that it has run in Midland. Due to his heavy involvement, Alexa soon began to accompany him on the walks as a young child.
“Once I got old enough that I could walk three miles I joined it and started doing it with him.” Alexa said.
Myers saw how successful other Walk MS events in other cities were, and wanted to bring awareness for the disease in the community.
“Both Eric and Alexa have been members of Team Dow for years volunteering to set up the event, walking in it, and raising money,” Myers said. “They are year over year enthusiastic supporters of the event.”
The walk, however, has a lot of personal meaning for the Swansons. Eric’s father, Richard Swanson, was diagnosed with MS when Eric was 6, and eventually passed away from complications due to the disease in 1995. Eric and his younger brother would come to struggle with the diagnosis.
“They hid it from us for a while, because when I was 6, I don’t think emotionally we were ready to deal with the fact that our Dad is sick,” Eric said. “You think your dad is like superman, and we weren’t really ready.”
In the years after the diagnosis, Richard’s condition quickly progressed, causing him to retire early when Eric was in middle school. The loss of his father’s physical capabilities was something that Eric struggled with while learning about the disease.
“By the time I was in middle school he was walking with a cane, by the time I got to the first part of high school he was walking with a walker, and by the time I graduated he was bedridden,” Eric said. “I would go to my friends’ houses and their dads were outside and playing football, and that was never something that happened in my house because we really couldn’t.”
While Richard was bedridden, Eric had to mature very quickly. Eric and his brother needed to learn how to handle the effects of Richard’s disease.
“I cleaned bedpans before I could drive,” Eric said. “There were times that he was taking medicine and he couldn’t get up. Somebody has to learn how to do that, especially when you’re the only one home.”
Alexa first learned about her grandfather’s illness early in her life. As she got older, she became gradually more exposed to the disease and learned more information about it.
“I would’ve been young when I first heard about it; it would have been when I first started doing the walks,” Alexa said. “It became different for me when I grew up and learned what he [Richard] had to go through.”
While there were struggles, however, life living with MS wasn’t all sad. Eric fondly remembers his father as being a big reader, a Star Trek fan, and having a great sense of humor. The two felt particularly close due to their similar personalities.
“I’ll admit – I was resentful,” Eric said. “But at the same time, he’s my dad. Being able to have that closer connection with him was important.”
Now, years after Richard’s passing, Alexa continues to strengthen her bond with her own father.
“Hearing about what happened makes me appreciate having a dad more now that I hear about all the things he wasn’t able to do,” Alexa said. “He’s [Richard] been an indirect influence in my life in that way.”
Eric made it his mission to provide all the things for his daughter that he couldn’t experience in his childhood with his own father.
“I made a point to do it so she didn’t necessarily have to deal with that,” Eric said.
Now, the two share the annual Walk MS in Midland each year. Myers is always glad to see the Swansons in the walk each year.
“The work that they are doing for the walk and the fundraising for MS research is so important,” Myers said. “I’m very glad that they are able to have such an influential role in the community.”
Myers believes that the annual walk is a way to get people together to work to bring awareness for an illness that impacts a number of people in the community.
“Through these walks, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of other people whose lives have been impacted by MS in some way,” Myers said. “It’s uplifting to see all of these people are willing to put effort into learning more about this disease and making a bigger impact in the community.”
The walk is a way for Alexa to honor her grandfather’s memory and to remember what he had gone through in his life.
“I never got to meet him because he passed away before I was born, so it’s been very personal for me in that way,” Alexa said.
Both of them believe that the walk serves an important purpose beyond the scope of research to finding a cure; it also serves to find ways to help and support people currently struggling with the illness. By participating, the two are able to share something important together while also taking action to fight MS.
“Everyone gets a bib to wear on your shirt that says: what are you walking for?” Eric said. “Every year, I say, ‘this is for you, Dad.’”

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Walking for Change