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Patients lament closing of MS center

| Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005

Bill Knight wheeled into the Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Center in Banksville for the last time Wednesday to say good-bye to the place -- and the friends -- that have been at the center of his life.

"It's been the highlight of my life for the past 11 years," he said. "There's nothing that will ever replace this. It's like the loss of a family all at once."

Budget constraints forced the center to close its doors. Director Susan Navish said she thinks the center was the only independent MS clinic in the nation.

"It was a difficult decision that had to be made in order to continue the mission," Navish said. "We had to reduce one service in order to continue to provide the others."

MS is a chronic and often degenerative disease that affects the central nervous system and can affect many parts of the body.

Navish said the Multiple Sclerosis Service Society, an independent group founded 53 years ago, will maintain a staff of seven and continue to provide home care services with a visiting nurse, a referral service, monthly support group meetings and a program to help MS patients acquire medical equipment.

But nine other staffers were furloughed and the therapy center on Banksville Road -- which also served as a social center for about 70 people with MS -- closed its doors.

Navish said the therapy center accounted for 40 to 50 percent of the society's $780,000 annual budget, and with insurance reimbursements, donations and financial support from the United Way all declining, it was impossible to keep it open.

She said clients will be able to receive physical, occupational and speech therapy -- all of which are covered by insurance -- at other facilities, but the center's restorative and maintenance rehabilitation program and the informal support system are something they will not find elsewhere.

Most rehabilitation facilities are affiliated with hospitals. The MS center was independent, and that's a tough position in the modern world, Navish said.

"In this environment, it's impossible to be independent," she said. "It financially doesn't work."

Knight said spending time with fellow MS sufferers made life better. Many visited the center two or three days a week for five hours or more.

"If you had MS when you came in, you didn't feel like you had it when you were here," he said. "Everybody here has made friends and depends on one another for support and advice."

Reana Watson, 31, of Cross Creek, Washington County, was diagnosed with MS a dozen years ago. She recently became engaged to a man she met when he worked as an Access driver, delivering her to and from the center.

"I'm really disappointed that it has to be closing," she said. "This is my home away from home."

Nurse Joy Anderson, who worked eight years at the center, said the center was an example of how a health care system should -- but rarely does -- work.

"I wouldn't have traded this experience for the world," Anderson said. "The socialization between them gives them strength to continue to deal with the ongoing, unexpected challenges of their disease."

Susie Petrie, 44, of Whitehall, spent yesterday afternoon collecting contact information from other, less mobile center clients so she can share with them what she learns as she scouts out new options for therapy.

"One of the other clients said, 'I feel like I'm going to die.' It's a horrible thing, and it came so fast," Petrie said. "They told us just a couple of weeks ago."

Despite feeling that more could have been done to keep the facility open, Petrie said she is trying to look on the bright side.

"I'm trying to be positive and think that everything happens for a reason."

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