Mother's illness draws daughter closer

Morgan student balances studies with caring for mom through multiple sclerosis, breast cancer

  • DaVeeda White, right, with her daughter, Glennae Williams, at their home in Mt. Winans.
DaVeeda White, right, with her daughter, Glennae Williams,… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
May 07, 2014|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Sometimes, late at night, Glennae Williams is startled awake by a crash.

"Are you ok, Ma?" she calls to her mother.

Her mother, DaVeeda White, has fallen again. She gets up to use the bathroom and her legs collapse, just as they have been collapsing since Glennae was a little girl.

"I'm on the floor," White calls back. She knows her daughter will come.

These are not the kinds of nights one associates with the last exhausted, exuberant, anxious weeks of college.

Williams stays up late cramming for finals and fretting about grades, then rushes off to work in the morning. She'll be finished with all of her classes in a few weeks, although she won't officially graduate until the end of the summer. She wonders about her career, what life will be like now that school is finally behind her.

But there's another question hanging over her: Should she stay with her mom, or move out on her own?

Williams, the only child of a single mother, has cared for her mom through multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. She's bathed her, taken her to doctor's appointments, slept on a hard sofa in her hospital room.

But now the soft-spoken 22-year-old wonders if it's time to start her own life, away from her mom.

"I'm so torn," she says, sitting in the living room of their Mount Winans rowhouse. A train clangs in the distance. "I wanted to move out and get my own place."

"A 'swanky apartment,' is what she calls it," says White, 47.

"But you don't want to leave your mom," Williams says.

The diagnosis

Williams was in second grade when her mother first started falling.

White would be working a shift as a cardiac nurse at St. Agnes Hospital when the floor would start to spin. At first, she thought it was fatigue. Then her arms and legs began to tingle. She started slipping, tripping.

"We used to tease her and say she was clumsy," recalls her sister, Monica Pringle.

And then, one day, her legs just wouldn't move, White says.

She knew what she had before the spinal tap confirmed it: multiple sclerosis.

Although the cause of the disease is not known, multiple sclerosis is believed to be an auto-immune disease. Women under 50 are most likely to be diagnosed, although it can affect men and people at other ages as well.

Multiple sclerosis means "many scars." The scars are microscopic, spread throughout the body and caused by the body attacking itself.

White blood cells attack cells in the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the nervous system, eating away at a protective covering called the myelin sheath, which functions like the plastic coating on a power cord. As the covering thins, the nerve cell is no longer able transmit electrical impulses. The result is numbness, balance problems, weakness, paralysis.

However, the body is able to rebuild these coverings and, once the myelin returns, the symptoms subside.

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of relapses and remissions, misery and normalcy.

"It's not a disease that's the same for any two people," says Kerry Naunton, the nurse who heads University of Maryland's Center for MS, where White receives treatment.

White was hospitalized after she was first diagnosed, then spent time in a rehab facility, learning how to use her limbs again. She stayed with her own mother, who cared for her as if she were a little girl again.

It was an odd role for her, the oldest of three sisters raised by a single mother, says Pringle.

"She was the bossy oldest sister, in a good way," Pringle recalls. "She was always the strong one."

The hospitalization was the first time that mother and daughter were apart. White had split up with Williams' father just after the girl's second birthday. She married another man a couple years later, but that marriage ended in divorce. It had mostly been just the two of them.

Williams stayed with her dad while White was recovering. When mother and daughter returned home, White slept in a hospital bed in the middle of the living room. The girl's aunts and grandmother took her to school.

Gradually, White's strength returned. But her life had permanently changed. She quit her job, went on disability and devoted herself to spending time with her daughter.

"I looked at it as a blessing," she says. "I missed the whole first year [of Williams' schooling], because I was working crazy busy hours. But after that, I was right there. I could be her cheerleader. I wouldn't have had that if I had to work full time."

Williams says she doesn't remember much about her mother's illness in those years.

What she remembers most clearly is her mother's presence.

"I'd say, 'Ma, I need you to come to school today,' and she would," Williams says.

Finding strength

Williams nearly left Baltimore once before. She planned to attend a small, liberal arts college in Virginia.

But the summer before she was set to leave, her mother persuaded her to enroll in a summer program at Morgan State University for incoming engineering students.

Something clicked for her on campus.

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