Hardly a day goes by that 18-year-old Braden Whitaker doesn’t reflect on May 3, 2011.
It was supposed to be just another day. He would wake up to his alarm, grab some breakfast, and head out the door for another day of classes at Ironwood Ridge High School.
But nothing was normal about that day.
“I woke up, and immediately knew something was wrong,” said Whitaker.
What once came naturally to Whitaker was suddenly a daunting task – he was having difficulty speaking.
“My parents thought maybe I was just tired, I thought I was just tired, so I went about my day,” said Whitaker.
Whitaker headed to school, where the issue only escalated.
“When I went into my class, I couldn’t write correctly,” said Whitaker. “It felt like I was writing left-handed. I couldn’t tell my hand what to do.”
Recalling the symptoms his grandfather previously had during a stroke, Whitaker feared something similar was happening to him.
He called his mother, Tammy, who upon picking him up from school, noticed the right side of her son’s face was not moving when he spoke.
She drove him to their primary-care doctor, who immediately recommended they go to the emergency room.
There, doctors took an MRI of Whitaker’s brain.
The results were crushing.
“They told me they’d found a 15 millimeter abnormal mass in my brain, and that I either had a stroke or brain cancer,” said Whitaker. “That was without a doubt the most scary moment in my life. I was devastated. It was a very defining moment in my life. I was able to take that and appreciate the things I have so much more, because when you’re told something like that, you’re afraid you’re going to lose everything. Cancer – brain cancer, contextually meant death to me.”
The next few days were filled with additional tests, hovering uncertainties, and visits from loved ones, who cried at his bedside.
“I really didn’t know what to think. I was so overwhelmed by the news,” said Whitaker’s mother.
As the tests provided doctors with further information, Whitaker eventually got some more shocking news - the original diagnosis was incorrect.
“They ruled out cancer and a stroke by the end of three to four days,” said Whitaker.
While doctors considered the fact the actual issue could be multiple sclerosis, the symptoms didn’t quite match.
The diagnosis of multiple sclerosis is defined as two lesions separated by space and time. Whitaker only had a single lesion on his brain.
Because of this, doctors diagnosed Whitaker with Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis, a virus that causes the immune system to attack the brain.
But, after about a year’s time and much rehabilitation, that diagnosis would also prove incorrect.
It was then – around the beginning of Whitaker’s senior year – that he began to experience further complications, namely numbness in his feet and hands.
Whitaker’s neurologist performed an MRI and discovered two more lesions: one in his spine and a second in his brain.
“At that point, I immediately knew I had multiple sclerosis. Once again, it was devastating,” said Whitaker.
Now, about two years after his initial symptoms, Whitaker must take a preventative shot each day, maintain a healthy diet and sleeping habit, and keep stress to a minimum in order to avoid recurring symptoms.
The possibility of another episode is something that is crosses the young man’s mind each and everyday.
But it doesn’t consume him.
Whitaker has anything but given up on life – and it’s a life he continues to live on his terms.
“I’m confident in who I am right now, and to let it defeat me would bring sadness into my life,” said Whitaker. “I don’t let this define who I am. I focus on the positive, and not the negative, and on living my life.”
And what a life it’s been so far.
Last week, Whitaker graduated from Ironwood Ridge as the student body president holding a weighted 4.0 grade point average. He closed out his high school years as an advanced placement student, avid wrestler and gymnast, Eagle Scout, church leader, and more.
In the fall, plans to attend Brigham Young University, where he will be the only freshman to make the cheer squad.
After his freshman year, Whitaker will embark on a Mormon mission for two years before returning to finish his schooling.
His education will be paid for with a $3,000 renewable scholarship on behalf of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Arizona Chapter’s Marie Ringel Scholarship Fund.
Whitaker is Arizona’s Top Scholar and stands among the top 18 scholars in the nation receiving multiple sclerosis scholarships.
The MS Society has served as a beacon of support and enlightenment for the Whitaker family when answers about the disease seemed otherwise impossible to come by.
“We are extremely grateful for everything they have done for us,” said Whitaker. “They changed everything for us and really shed light upon my condition.”
The support received by family, friends, and the general public has been just as abundant.
“Everyone around us has been so supportive and kind. That becomes overwhelming,” Tammy, fighting back tears. “I just can’t believe how many people care, and they’re willing to show it in so many different ways.”
Whitaker plans to pursue a career field that will benefit victims of multiple sclerosis, likely as a motivational speaker or neurologist.