MENASHA (NBC 26) — Laura Thiel is a single mother in Menasha battling multiple sclerosis.
As time passes, her symptoms worsen. But it's not too late for a procedure that could stop or even reverse the symptoms she's already experiencing.
She just needs to raise enough money before any damage becomes permanent.
“They didn't really explain to me how life-changing and devastating it could be,” Laura said, remembering the day she learned her diagnosis.
Laura had been suffering from intense migraines and numbness in her limbs that eventually led her to seek medical treatment. After an abnormal CAT scan, the hospital conducted an MRI and found lesions on her brain.
"To rule out anything else, like Lyme's Disease or other things, they had to do a spinal tap. And so they did a spinal tap and then they found that I had MS," Laura said. "But I didn't really know what it was. And the doctor kind of just gave me a pamphlet."
MS is a chronic neurological disease that affects the immune system. It has been called a "snowflake disease" because no two snowflakes are the same, and people living with MS can have completely different experiences.
Dr. Ahmed Obeidat is an Associate Professor of Neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He is the Director of the Fellowship Program for Multiple Sclerosis. He's never met Laura, but MS is his specialty.
"People will have new neurological symptoms, meaning that they could lose vision, they could lose the ability to move an arm or a leg, they could lose the ability to control [their] bladder, they could lose the ability to speak sometimes, and then the ability to walk with good balance, so they could lose their balance," Obeidat said. "Lots of fatigue or lots of cognitive difficulties can happen in MS."
Laura has experienced all of these symptoms since she was first diagnosed in 2008.
“It can really literally be anywhere and anything, so it's just so unpredictable," she said. "You don't know what's going to happen or where it's gonna go.”
If she overexerts herself or even experiences temperatures too high, it can be disastrous for her.
"I have to have my house at like 71 all year long. If it gets to 74, my legs start to go weak and I'm like stumbling around the house," Laura said. "The air stopped working and we had to go to a hotel."
She said she's tried many medications and their effectiveness is waning. She's spoken with her neurologist, and after trying so many different outlets, there's hope for her to have a normal life again.
There is a treatment called autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
Obeidat helped explain this treatment, but he wanted to be very clear that he's never met Laura and he was not explaining it to recommend it for her. That is a decision between Laura and her doctor.
"We're trying to work with the immune system to try to reorganize it, you may say. We tell the nerve cells, 'Well, you shouldn't be attacking the brain and spine, you should do your stuff and fight infections and cancer. And this is what these therapies are doing," Obeidat said.
For the treatment, doctors would mobilize Laura's own stem cells from her bone marrow into her bloodstream. They would then harvest those stem cells, oblate — or, wipe out — her immune system, and then reintroduce her stem cells so that her body can regrow a new system that might not attack itself anymore.
It is an experimental treatment, and it's been used to help with other autoimmune diseases including certain cancers, but there are risks.
That's why Obeidat says that there are several case series and ongoing clinical trials for it. It can be highly successful, but it is reserved only for people who failed other therapies.
"There is a high success rate with this procedure. There are risks, and those risks can be serious," said Obeidat.
Unfortunately, the treatment is expensive. So, Laura and her loved ones have partnered with Community Benefit Tree to raise money. The nonprofit takes donations and those donations are tax-deductible, unlike a GoFundMe.
Anyone interested in helping Laura reach her goal can donate at this link. It also shares upcoming events and fundraisers planned for her.
“The Community Benefit Tree helped us put a big fundraiser together last fall. It was supposed to be a one-and-done event. We were supposed to raise $72,000... and while we did do a great event, and it was a lot of work, and I think was pretty successful, we only got about — not even halfway to our goal,” said Carrie Lane.
Carrie is Laura's cousin and one of her primary event coordinators.
"We're gonna keep trying, but we can't do it ourselves. And that's why we we need to rely on the generous people in this community to help us. We all think Laura's reason is pretty great. And we need to get her this treatment. So, we don't give up," Carrie said.
Laura and her loved ones need to act fast so that the damage to her system never becomes permanent.
“The sooner I can get this done, the better. Because while I'm waiting to get HSCT more damage can occur and I can't reverse that,” Laura said.
"I could wake up completely paralyzed tomorrow for all I know," said Laura." And not only that, there's complications where there's lung weakness and... I have lung weakness. That's the other symptom that I — big one — that I had."
Laura's event planners have two more major dates set. After that, they have to take a break for the year.
"[We're] trying to raise as much money as we can for these two events because after this, we pretty much have to take a break," Carrie said. "Those of us on Team Laura — a lot of us are accountants, so we're going into busy season, and we really probably won't be able to get back up and running with any events until like next spring or summer."
It's been a difficult journey for Laura, physically and emotionally. But she has her daughter Arianna and the support of a family that loves her and refuses to give up on her.
“You're the most kind person and the most caring person I know. And I think if everybody knew you the way that we know you, you'd already have your treatment," Carrie said.
The final fundraiser planned this year will be held at the Capital Center in Appleton on September 16. It's a Bags for Laura bean bag tournament, and you can register here.
But there are many ways to support Laura in her effort to take her life back.