GREENVILLE — Fifteen years ago Jalon Ekholm’s life trundled along like a well-oiled locomotive, each day following the next along tracks she had carefully mapped out in her mind. Her career in the Air Force was going well; she served at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in communications. Top-secret messages travelled through her hands on their way to military and civilian recipients.
The job also entailed climbing through sewers and manholes, tracing cables and checking for security breaches along hard-wired lines. It was interesting work, a job she enjoyed.
In 1996, the Greenville High School graduate married fellow Greenville resident John D. Ekholm III and returned with her new husband to Ohio to finish her tour of duty. A son, Koby, followed while she was stationed there, born at the base hospital.
After being honorably discharged, the young family moved back to Greenville, living for a time with John’s parents. It was during this time that Jalon’s train began to show the first signs of a possible derailment.
Her son, in 2002, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. To provide the extra attention Koby would require, Jalon left her job at Davidson Plyforms and became a full-time mother/teacher/homemaker.
“When my son was in kindergarten, he would flap his hands, rock, stare at ceiling fans, try to retreat in crowded situations and he had difficulty connecting with peers,” Jalon explains. “Through the years I worked with him and customized different home behavior plans with him and I communicated regularly with his teachers and volunteered at the school. When he was in fifth grade, I chose to begin working as a paraprofessional at the Belding Middle School so I could be there for him and connect daily with his teachers.”
Jalon’s dedication to her son’s education paid off. Kody eventually transitioned into a mainstreamed student pulling down A’s, B’s and C’s in most subjects.
As it turned out, this pertinacity, this unwillingness to accept anything but a full, rich life for her son, would prove to be basic training for an even greater challenge yet to come.
“I woke up one morning seeing everything double and I staggered into the walls of our home constantly — half of my face went numb — my hands and feet had been going numb for some time when I slept and they were still numb,” Jalon says. “I was having massive back pain and I was having difficulty swallowing food, amongst many other things. I thought I had had a stroke.”
Tests at the hospital, including an MRI, returned inconclusive results. For the next few years, Jalon would experience “episodes,” but they always cleared up. She attributed the problem to stress related to a new job, to a pinched nerve, to any number of minor and easily treatable causes.
Then one day she could no longer perform the simple task of handwriting. Her back hurt. Her words slurred.
Another MRI test showed lesions on her brain, lesions that had been missed in the earlier test. Her doctor confirmed the news: Jalon had had multiple sclerosis for several years and her condition was likely worsening.
Though MS is no longer considered fatal, there is no known cure. The disease often results in a lifetime of pain; about one-third of those diagnosed eventually lose the ability to walk unassisted.
Jalon’s train jumped the rails.
“For months after my diagnosis, I went through a bit of depression and didn’t want to do much of anything,” Jalon relates. “I had already left the school by this time and so I was home full time. After it finally sank in that I had MS, and I wasn’t going to die, at least not today, I concluded that (the) diagnosis marked a turning point in my life.
“I made a decision that I was not about to allow anything to put limits on me, not even a chronic illness. So, I began taking a very active role in my health. I changed my diet, added daily exercise and I began taking numerous vitamin supplements. I also began a successful home based photography/graphic design and website development company called Graffitia Multimedia, where I work today.”
Jalon’s mother, Dianne Russell, who now lives in Kalkaska, describes her daughter as a “fighter.” Dianne, who had earlier been injured in a fairly serious accident, had rehabilitated in part with the help of a program called PSI Strategies for Life Success, based in California and dedicated to helping people turn their lives around.
Jalon’s brother, Wade Marr, who lives in California, also had gone through the program and achieved what Jalon calls “enormous positive changes.”
The seminars involve both physical and mental challenges and force participants to push themselves to the limits of their abilities. One of those challenges involved climbing to the top of a telephone pole, pulling oneself upright and standing on its end; a challenge for anyone, but a veritable Kilimanjaro for an MS sufferer.
“MS had stolen a lot of strength and confidence from me in the past and it was very important to me to take part in each challenge offered,” Jalon says. “It was important to me to show myself that I am still strong, confident, capable. I am a survivor, not a victim. I climbed the 40-foot pole all the way to the top.”
That moment, standing atop the pole, represented yet another turning point for Jalon. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she decided to become an example, an inspiration to other MS sufferers, a proof of concept that an MS diagnoses does not equate to a life less rich than anyone else’s.
To that end, she is trying to raise funds for an upcoming Women’s Leadership Seminar to better train herself in the fundamentals of public service.
“I want to inspire others,” Jalon says. “I want someone to look at me and say, ‘Because of you, I didn’t give up.’ That has turned into my greatest ambition and I am determined.”
Jalon’s website, MS Warrior (mswarrior.net) was created as a platform for spreading her message of hope. She hopes to bring other disabled individuals into the fold to share their own stories of hope and ultimate triumph over adversity.
The site, along with her Facebook page, facebook.com/MultipleSclerosisWarrior, is helping raise funds for her trip.
Like a snowball rolling downhill, Jalon’s campaign has been gaining momentum in recent months, but those closest to her are most familiar with the rough road she has travelled so far, and the challenges that no doubt lie ahead.
The voice of her son, Koby, resonates with pride when he speaks of his mother.
“I think what she’s doing is awesome,” Koby says. “She’s got a lot of people behind her, supporting her, who really want to see her accomplish this. I’m really proud of her.”
Likewise, Jalon’s mother takes inspiration from the efforts of her daughter.
“She’s going to fight this,” Diane states. “It was very hard at first; she didn’t even want to discuss it. But then she decided she’d rather challenge herself physically than spend her life dulling the pain with pills.”
For her part, Jalon remains hopeful that her example will give other MS sufferers, along with those with other debilitating illnesses, a little hope.
“I have realized that (my story) is full of hope, encouragement, aspiration, ambition and drive,” Jalon says. “(It) has turned my original fundraiser into a vehicle of inspiration for many people, disabled and healthy alike.”