SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Paul Melia took a bike ride Oct. 20.
But instead of riding through the streets of South Orange or taking a path through a park, he covered Pier 91, the Holland Tunnel, the George Washington Bridge and Manhattan’s West Side on a ride that totaled about 50 miles as a fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Melia’s goal is to raise $3,000 by Nov. 19, and he was riding for one specific reason — he has MS.
A decade ago Melia was making copies at work when a coworker asked if he’d gone to the dentist that morning because one side of his face appeared paralyzed. He said “no,” but his speech was slurred and it was hard for him to talk. After a trip to the emergency room, Melia was diagnosed with MS. It was the year after he’d had a heart bypass to correct congenital blockage.
“There was the occasional tingle, but I thought it was just getting older or the medication I was on,” Melia said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Oct. 21. “MS isn’t usually something diagnosed in the ER.”
MS is a neurological disease in which the autoimmune system attacks the nervous system as if fighting an illness, interrupting the flow of information between the brain and body. Symptoms often vary among patients. After a year and a half of treatment and working with a neurologist, Melia is in remission. But it’s a disease that must be closely monitored and he injects himself with medications three times a week.
“I have some balance issues. Sometimes it takes a little longer for a word to get from my brain to my mouth. There are some motor skills also, if I want to push a button in an elevator sometimes I miss. It makes texting on an iPhone a lot of fun,” Melia joked.
He’s been a cyclist since his teenage years in Arlington, Va., and despite his health issues during the last 10 years, Melia has kept his bike rolling. He rides around South Orange and trains for longer rides with area cycling clubs. He finished the Bike MS ride in three hours and 58 minutes, adding the distance to his total of 2,234 for the year so far. Melia has had to adjust how he rides his bike in order to accommodate his occasional balance issues.
“I have what they call ‘power meters,’” he said. “It allows me to see how much power I’m using on each side. If I lean too much, my side can get numb, so seeing it lets me adjust and I know where the pressure is.”
A February 2019 study by the National MS Society, funds research on the disease and provides support to those who suffer from it, found that nearly a million people in the United States are living with the disease, more than double the previous count of 440,000, which came from a 1975 study. In addition to medical advancements, Melia said the updated statistics help support people with MS.
“It’s helped expand the isolation,” he said. “It’s an invisible disease; people don’t realize you have it. I look like a healthy fella, but when I get on the train I’m reaching for the rails because I don’t want to fall. But I’ve encountered so many people who have said ‘I know someone with MS.’”
Melia said he found the Bike MS event to be moving, as a person with the disease riding through New York, into New Jersey and back into New York to cross the finish line. While he completed those 50 miles, the fundraiser is ongoing. To donate to Melia’s campaign, go to http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/paulmelia.
“I didn’t know I had it until it appeared with a full on attack that sent me to the ER,” Melia said. “It’s a tricky disease. It can flare up and then disappear. You’re not sitting here wondering when it will happen, but it is something you have to keep an eye on. There are nights when I don’t want to be injecting myself, but if I don’t that could leave the door open to something happening. In the ’90s, there were only six treatments. Now there’s 16 treatments. That fundraising has caused all these medical innovations to exist.”
Photos Courtesy of Paul Melia