Artist no longer lets MS uproot her life

MARYSVILLE – Debbie Casteel of Marysville was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when she was 26.

It is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.

The diagnosis uprooted her life as day-to-day activities became increasingly more difficult due to the physical and cognitive symptoms of MS, such as fatigue, vision problems and loss of coordination. Over time, she stopped practicing her favorite hobby: painting.

Two years ago, she was referred to Dr. Ted Brown, an MS rehabilitation specialist at Kirkland-based EvergreenHealth, who provided her with new treatments and encouraged her to join an MS support group.

It was there she rekindled her passion for painting and learned she could still find joy in the same activities she practiced before her diagnosis. Now she uses art to communicate the small victories, as well as the frustrations, of living with MS.

Recently, Casteel donated one of her paintings to Brown’s office.

“Hare by the Roots” represents the day-to-day struggles of MS, the times when she wants to “pull her hair out because nothing is cooperating.” EvergreenHealth recently hosted a dedication ceremony for the painting.

Casteel said her dad, Trevor Lomas, was a talented artist and always encouraged her. But when she graduated from Sehome High School and moved out she got away from art because she had to “take care of the things you have to do” to survive in the world. Then she was diagnosed with MS. At the time she was afraid it might have been cancer or AIDS.

“It was better than what I was scared of,” she said.

Casteel was in a wheelchair for a long time.

“My whole life changed,” she said, adding she had problems remembering and would slur her speech.

Treatment for MS has improved tremendously since 1990. With physical therapy and newly developed drugs, she was able to walk again. Her life really improved under Brown’s care. The team care there “opened a whole new pathway of opportunities,” she said.

She has made new friends in the support group, was involved in the find a cure for MS fund-raiser and appeared on the TV show New Day Northwest regarding their walk-a-thon. She’s becoming better informed through books and an online support group, too.

Casteel said it took some time for her new medicine to get approved. She likes it because she only gets shots every other week.

“Two less needles is huge,” she said. Her husband, Barry, always encouraged her to paint again.

“But I didn’t want one more thing to fail and irritate me,” she said.

Casteel finally decided to try it after she was encourage by a man at church.

“Painting is my therapy now,” she said.

Because of her MS, she steadies her right hand with her left when painting. She said she also stays away from drawing straight lines because of some shaking she sometimes still can have. And, she has to take her time.

“Any good thing takes a while to do,” she said, adding it can take her a month to do a painting.

Casteel said the painting she gave to Brown was her favorite so far. “It’s the one I identify with,” she said. “With MS everything is difficult and nothing cooperates so you picture pulling your hair out.”

For anyone with MS, Casteel said persistence is key.

“Don’t give up. Keep going. But do it carefully. Then do it again.”

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