Multiple Sclerosis (MS) can be debilitating. It's a degenerative auto-immune disease that interferes with the passing on of nerve impulses throughout the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Episodes of MS can cause scars to appear in the central nervous system because of the breakdown of myelin, the insulating material that covers the nerve fibres. This can result in impairment of motor, sensory and cognitive functions to a greater or lesser extent. Some people use wheelchairs, as Bobby Bajram did for years.
Now 46, Bobby was diagnosed with MS when he was 13. At the time he was the youngest male in Australia to be diagnosed with the disease. He's been in and out of wheelchairs since he was 15, and there was a time when he couldn't use his legs. The MS also left him blind for five years. He lapses in and out of severe attacks that have to be managed by infusions of steroids, which help hasten the recovery of attacks to a level Bobby can work with. But a steroid infusion does not cure or prevent the damage of an attack; it only acts as an aid.
Challenging body with mind
“My childhood dream has been to climb Everest and I will do it. So like anyone with a disability and drive, it's about managing your symptoms and doing everything you can to make your body and mind strong”, says Bobby.
“Even when I was in a wheelchair at school in Albert Park, and the only student allowed to use the lifts there to class, it's been my positive mindset that gets me back on track. But it was gruelling to deal with it as a kid. In the old days there were no real drugs around to lessen the symptoms or attacks. Most of the medications didn't agree with me, so I was taken off them.” He now takes oral medication for MS.
Bobby believes his resilience in coping with the severity of the disorder is simply his wilful attitude and commitment to training his body to be strong. “The best treatment is laughter, positiveness and training in the gym. Strengthening your body is the best you can do and the best medicine.”
Last year, on his return from his climb in the Himalayas, Bobby says he was “out of action”. For the first six months after his return he was only well enough to train for two months. In 2014 he had 20 MS attacks.
“When I was climbing the 23,000 feet up Kala Pattar, sister peak to Mt Everest, the going was tough. I had a bad attack, my legs seized up and weakness took over. I had to go down the mountain for Prednisolone treatment. After that I walked back up to the top seven days later”, says Bobby.
Straight back into it
Bobby spends two hours a day training at the gym. He's dedicated to managing his wellbeing. “I live with fatigue and pain, and attacks affect my mobility and sight. If I have a relapse I give it a break for however long I need but then I get straight back into it.”
His hobbies include climbing up cliff faces and going rock climbing at Halls Gap in Victoria. He also listens to the experts, among them the gym trainers who specialise in managing fitness and who are one of the key sponsors for his climbs.
One of his trainers, Andrew Laurent, says, “The whole idea is to get him stronger and to train the body's self-awareness in space and time. There is a definite time delay with Bobby because of the MS and he has to have that faculty to climb. As a safeguard, he will also have the guidance of a Sherpa in front and behind.”
“The thing is to challenge the body with programs that change so that different muscle groups get worked,” says Andrew. “It is consistent with the advice of specialists who prescribe improving a person's condition to not only benefit heath and fitness but to help manage symptoms, pain and possibly relapses.”
Andrew says the objective of careful fitness rehabilitation and management is to get people who have a disability, or have had an injury, back to the sport they love without putting them at risk of injury.
But back to preparing for the Mount Everest chapter.
Bobby's expedition leaders will be with him again on the higher Mount Everest trek. While he has a strong support team who accompany him on the trek, the hazardous weather conditions are only broken once a year. This tiny window of opportunity for climbers is only a couple of weeks in May. And Bobby is persistent, disciplined and getting ready.
Says Bobby, “I am doing single leg exercises, balance work and a lot of full body exercises. What I do can be transferred to daily living or to prepare me for the climb. Part of the training is how to move my body in all its different planes using concise, slow movement to be aware of each movement, mechanically”.
Bobby says while his optimism is important, the wider community’s attitude also helps. “Sure it gets hard, but people are more educated about people with disabilities. They are so much more aware than nearly 40 years ago. People don't look at you now as if you are a freak.”