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Living with challenges of MS

Val Vissia, who works in the Career Center at Gonzaga University, talks with a student on the phone Dec. 17 at GU. Vissia was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Val Vissia, who works in the Career Center at Gonzaga University, talks with a student on the phone Dec. 17 at GU. Vissia was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Val Vissia has always been plagued by poor vision.

“I need to put my glasses on to find my contacts,” she said. But after she turned 40, her vision problems worsened. She was diagnosed with optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve.

Then her legs began to bother her. One summer while working in her garden she suddenly experienced severe weakness. “Boom! Out of nowhere it felt like my legs were encased in concrete,” she recalled. “I could barely make it the 50 yards from the garden to my house.”

Vissia had always been healthy and assumed these new issues were just an unwelcome byproduct of turning 40. After a bad fall at work, however, her doctor said, “Val, I think you might have MS.”

From the second-floor commons area near her office at Gonzaga University’s Crosby Student Center, Vissia recalled her reaction to her 1999 multiple sclerosis diagnosis. “At first I was just mad as heck. I felt like the life I thought I was going to have was over.”

She certainly wasn’t alone. According to the National MS Society Web site, the Northwest has one of the world’s highest incidences of MS.

Today, Vissia appears vibrant and healthy. “I have Relapsing-remitting MS, which means you’re fine or you are not,” she said. People with RRMS have unpredictable attacks of symptoms but usually return to normal health between relapses. Most, like Vissia, will experience vision problems and muscle weakness. Others suffer nerve pain, heat/cold intolerance, temporary paralysis, and bowel or respiratory problems.

As the reality of her diagnosis sank in, Vissia began to take charge of her life. She and her husband sold their Newman Lake home and bought a ranch near Davenport, Wash., something they’d long wanted to do. In addition, “I started a new career at 50 and came to work at GU.” She also got her yoga certification and now teaches classes at the university and in Davenport.

She changed her treatment plan and started a new medication. But one of the most significant things she did was to become an ambassador for MS Lifelines, an education and support group for those living with MS.

“Sometimes you just need someone who is in the trenches – someone who has been there,” Vissia said.

Locally, MS Lifelines sponsors the Connecting, Helping, Aspiring, Teaching program, a series of discussion groups facilitated by a nurse educator.

For those who prefer one-on-one communication, Vissia said MS Lifelines launched a program called Peer to Peer Connection. “It’s a scheduled telephone call with a mentor,” she said.

Though she’s doing well at the moment, the knowledge that she’s living with a chronic, incurable condition is never far from her.

“I still always wonder when the big one (relapse) is coming.”

Ponderosa once home to a ski resort

Ski-Mor is a chapter of Spokane Valley history almost forgotten.

One of the area’s first ski resorts, it operated for nine seasons where 44th Avenue meets the east slope of Browne Mountain in the Ponderosa neighborhood.

Entrepreneurs William Schafer and his son-in-law, Orrin Torrey, developed Ski-Mor as a winter playground in 1933. The 110-acre property had been in the Schafer family since 1850.

“It was something special,” said Marilyn Rider, 74, Torrey’s daughter.

The resort, open on weekends and holidays, featured an Olympic-size ski jump, a smaller ski jump, an outdoor ice skating rink, toboggan run and ski lodge.

The toboggan run was a long chute, using planks of wood as the sides to stabilize the snow.

“We would get five or six kids on and go down that thing,” said longtime Valley resident Lloyd Phillips, 84. “I don’t know how fast we were going, but we would go a-flying.”

Phillips and his friend Martha Eachon worked and played at the resort. Phillips was 8 and Eachon 9 when Ski-Mor opened during the Great Depression. The kids did not have money to use the facility.

The Schafers compensated the kids with food and use of the resort in exchange for small jobs.

“(The Schafers) were so good to us,” Phillips said. “Mrs. Schafer created jobs for us. My job was sweeping the ice every hour or two. I would come in and (Mrs. Schafer) would make me a hamburger and cocoa.”

When they finished working, the kids enjoyed the resort free of charge. Phillips remembers riding a modified bicycle down the bunny hill. The bike had runners instead of tires.

“Riding those bikes was unreal. They had no brakes. You just went down the hill a-flying and either fell off, hit something or made it clean down into the field,” Phillips said.

Rider and her twin sister, Carolyn, were very young when their parents operated the resort but would get to go occasionally to ice skate.

“It was real magical,” said Rider, who still lives in the Valley. “We would skate at night, and the lights from the lodge lit up the ice.”

Building the resort took years of hard work. Schafer and Torrey cleared the wooded hillside, built the ski lodge that housed a large rock fireplace and kitchen, and dug the hole for the ice skating pond, which was fed with spring water year round.

According to Florence Boutwell’s book “The Spokane Valley, Volume 2, A History of the Growing Years,” the resort closed in 1942. The book cites one reason as the snow “always coming at the wrong time.” Rider believes a lawsuit over a toboggan accident was another factor. The owners eventually sold the property.

Cindy Hval Valerie Putnam

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