MS diagnosis at 20 complicates college for one Georgia student

For the last 5 years, Brenda Duran has battled through fatigue and falls to get through Georgia Gwinnett College.

It's part of life, she says, with multiple sclerosis, or MS.

Brenda Duran began falling in her late teens. She was 20, when she took a major tumble at Georgia Gwinnett College. That's when Duran learned why she was feeling so dizzy and off-balance: she has MS.

The autoimmune disease snuck into the Lawrenceville, Georgia, 25-year-old's life gradually.

"I used to run a lot, and I would have these falls," Duran says.

She now uses a walker because of balance issues.

And, then, she says,  there is the constant tired-to-the-bone feeling.

"I used to like to dance, but I got too tired to dance," she says.  "But, it wasn't until January of 2015 that I had a fall on campus."

Duran underwent a brain MRI that led to her diagnosis.

She has MS.

Brenda Duran began falling in her late teens. She was 20, when she took a major tumble at Georgia Gwinnett College. That's when Duran learned why she was feeling so dizzy and off-balance: she has MS.

Her neurologist, Dr. Chris Russell of the MS Center of Atlanta, says the lesions on Duran's brain are typical of MS, an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune cells go awry and begin attacking the central nervous system.

"In the case of MS, it's attacking the myelin, which is the lining of the nerves that run in the brain and the spinal cord," Russell says.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates nearly a million Americans are living with MS.

It's three times more common in women, and tends to hit people between the ages of 20 and 50.

Each person's disease is different.

Dr. Russell says the symptoms of MS can vary and often come and go, especially early on.

Brenda Duran began falling in her late teens. She was 20, when she took a major tumble at Georgia Gwinnett College. That's when Duran learned why she was feeling so dizzy and off-balance: she has MS.

So, he says, the warning signs can be easily ignored or confused with other medical conditions.

"People can have trouble with cognition, memory, concentration, multitasking," he says.  "We frequently see people who have difficulty with balance, numbness in an extremity, weakness or coordination problems," Dr. Russell says.  "I would say, most patients, when we look back at their history, going back years before they were diagnosed, they will say, 'Oh, yeah.  There was that thing where my foot was numb for two months, or where I felt a little clumsy in my left hand.'"

Brenda Duran is now 5 years out from her diagnosis and says she's doing pretty well.

She gets monthly IV infusions of the drug Tysabri, which Dr. Russell says keeps Duran's immune cells responsible for her MS from penetrating into her brain.

It took a Herculean effort, but Duran graduated from Georgia Gwinnett College in December, after 5 and a half years.

"I managed with an infusion I get every 28 months, which I would miss class for that day," Duran says. "The disability office (at school) was a great help along the way."

Brenda Duran began falling in her late teens. She was 20, when she took a major tumble at Georgia Gwinnett College. That's when Duran learned why she was feeling so dizzy and off-balance: she has MS.

Brenda Duran graduated from Georgia Gwinnett College in December 2019

She's ready, she says, to start living a life beyond her diagnosis.

"I think to myself there is a reason why I'm here in this world still in the world," Duran says.  "So, I better make the most of it.