Challenge Accepted: La Jolla MS patient refuses to give up active lifestyle

Barbara Katz is known around Casa de Manana as ‘Boogie-boarding Barbara.’

“I love to boogieboard!” Barbara Katz said after riding a whitecap about 15 feet into the South Casa Beach shore. “It’s great fun!”

To an outside observer, Katz — a Casa de Manana resident, retiree and widower — is not only a normal 71-year-old, but an unusually healthy one.

That’s only if the observations aren’t made too close, however.

“My symptoms are what they call ‘invisible,’ ” Katz said.

Like 947,000 other Americans, Katz lives with multiple sclerosis (MS), a disorder in which the brain directs the body’s immune system to attack the protein that coats the nerves of the brain, spinal cord and eyes.

Every MS patient’s symptoms are different, but Katz said hers include a neurogenic bladder, memory and vision problems and occasionally terrible pain she describes as “like a drill zzz’ing into my brain.” (She says the drug Neurontin helps.)

But she insists on remaining positive. It’s her prescription not only for fighting the effects of MS but depression about her late husband, Bob — who died of a brain tumor in 2002. (Katz moved from their Del Mar townhouse two years ago, because its three stories proved too much to get around.)

“I tell people I do well because I have an optimistic attitude and I exercise,” she said. “I try to walk every day and I take stairs on purpose all the time. If you go by use it or lose it, I’m better off.”

Tingling in the extremities was Katz’s first clue that something wasn’t right.

“The first doctor I went to thought it was all in my head — that I was imagining it,” she said. “But I had a routine appointment with my ophthalmologist and he saw that I had inflammation of the optic nerve.”

That’s often the telltale symptom. Katz said her glasses correct her vision as much as possible, but that the vision in her left eye “isn’t sharp.”

In recent years, balance problems have also introduced themselves. Katz used to boogie board three times a week, but it’s reserved for rare special occasions now. (While walking out against the waves with her board, she requested to hold this reporter’s hand to avoid being knocked backward.)

Still, Katz is fortunate compared to those who suffer from more severe cases that can cause total paralysis and blindness.

“I had a friend back east,” she said. “We used to do things. Then she started using a cane, then a walker and then she was bed-bound. You just never know.”

Katz’s disease hasn’t progressed terribly much since she was diagnosed back in 1976 in her native Maryland.

“I feel like I’m lucky,” she said.

Refusing to take that luck for granted, Katz participates every year in part of the 50-mile Challenge Walk MS: Southern California, to date raising nearly $300,000.

“It’s the least I can do,” she said. “You ask me to walk a couple miles, that’s easy.”

As she ascended the stairs leading to the Children’s Pool, Katz apologized for being so slow. She said has a cane, but refuses to ever use it.

“Is that bad that I don’t?” she asked.

Challenge Walk MS: Southern California

Starts 8 a.m. Friday, Nov. 8 in Oceanside

Finishes at approximately 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10 in Mission Bay, traversing La Jolla via the Torrey Pines Mesa.