Ashlie Clark: Young Athlete Finds New Strength
It was the spring of 2011, and Ashlie Clark was a hard-working student athlete who was confident about her future as an accomplished softball player. Since she was a little girl she had spent countless hours conditioning, training, practicing and competing in the sport that she loved. As her sophomore year in high school was drawing to a close, by all accounts she was well on her way to a successful college career as a NCAA athlete, as colleges across the state were already showing interest in her talent. Those dreams came to a screeching halt however, when she suddenly and inexplicably began experiencing mysterious neurological symptoms after a routine softball tournament.
“I had always been really healthy, and out of the blue within the span of a week I developed a limp when I walked, and noticed one side of my face did not move properly,” said Clark. “I was falling asleep in the middle of conversations and my arm was drooping and drawing up. I couldn’t pitch at all.”
A battery of diagnostic tests indicated that Clark had suspicious lesions on her brain. She was treated initially with an intravenous course of steroid therapy and released from the hospital a week later. She suffered another attack shortly thereafter and was referred to Flavia Nelson, M.D., Associate Professor of Neurology with the Multiple Sclerosis Research Group at Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. It was then that Clark received the diagnosis that would change her life, and she learned that she had relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS).
“MS is a rare disease. The disease behaves differently in children and young adults, and the symptoms can be much more aggressive and dramatic in younger patients,” said Dr. Nelson. “But the good news is that most patients generally recover very well with early intervention.”
For Clark, receiving the diagnosis was incredibly hard when she realized her dreams of becoming an NCAA softball star would likely never come to fruition. “I couldn’t perform at even a fraction of the level on which I had competed before, and my coach was not supportive. I had worked so hard for so long. I had a lot of friends who didn’t understand and they just disappeared. It was a difficult time and I felt abandoned.”
With the unwavering support of her parents, Clark decided that she would forge ahead, quit softball and focus entirely on her health and her grades instead. She began an interferon drug therapy regimen consisting of injections three times a week, and made sure that she followed a healthy diet and exercise schedule which included physical therapy to help repair nerve damage.
The hard work paid off, and she graduated from high school in the top seven percent of her class. Now a freshman at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Clark has chosen a new path to follow – one that honors her love of softball and sports, yet allows her to live comfortably with the physical limitations she faces since her diagnosis. She is majoring in public relations with an emphasis in sports marketing, and is now well enough to play intramural softball.
“I am so thankful for Dr. Nelson,” said Clark. “She is more than a doctor, she is like a friend. She explained my disease and treatment options in a way that was easy to understand, and she is always accessible any time I have a question.” Clark also added that Dr. Nelson was quick to come to her defense when her high school softball coach was treating her unfairly after her diagnosis. “Dr. Nelson knew how important softball was to me, and she approached the school board on my behalf to make sure everyone understood my condition and that I was not discriminated against.”
Dr. Nelson credits Clark’s positive outlook and indomitable spirit with helping her to overcome the struggles she has faced with her diagnosis at such a young age. “She is definitely a fighter, and I am so happy that she was able to go back to what she loves in a way that works for her,” said Dr. Nelson. “I have a lot of young MS patients who are able to live a very normal life, and that is my greatest hope for Ashlie.”