Impact: Life With MS
Over the last couple of years, I’ve watched Crista Watts Baker blossom into an amazing artist, expressing profound ideas through the use of what she calls “Karmatography”. I’ve also watched as she has gone in and out of hospital dealing with flare ups of her relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis. I had a chance to spend a half hour with her talking about her life, work, art and MS during the IMPACT radio show back in September. Her sense of humour and love of life blew me away.
Crista was born on a cold January day in Newfoundland back in 1981. She was adopted by her loving parents at the age of three months and grew up in a small rural community until she graduated from high school and went off to Memorial University in St. John’s. A self-described professional student, she spent seven years taking a mix of classes ranging from English to behavioral neuroscience and earned degrees in Arts and Commerce.
In 2005, she applied for an eight-month work term in Fort McMurray, which led to a permanent role in the areas of business analysis, controls and internal audits. An opportunity came up in Cambridge, Ontario (a community that was a better fit for her husband Chris) and left Fort McMurray for a time. Crista started a consulting business that found her flying back and forth doing contract work in the oil sands and eventually led to another offer of a permanent position in the community. She convinced Chris to give Fort McMurray another go and they relocated back to the community.
The signs that something was not quite right started early, when she was a teenager. But the cloudy thinking and dizziness reached a point where she was no longer able to function at work. She reached out to doctors on numerous occasions and always got the same answer.
“All the tests would come back as normal,” she said. “But I said: “No. I know my body. This is not right.”
One of the doctors ordered an MRI, trying to get at the bottom of what was causing the symptoms.
“The day he called me back with the results I really wasn’t expecting anything,” she recalled. “All the other tests had come back normal. Why would this one be any different?”
The MRI results proved to be a surprise.
“You have lesions in your brain that are indicative of MS,” she said, recalling the words of the doctor. She was at a loss for words.
“I really didn’t know a lot about MS at the time,” she said. “He started talking about things like getting a spinal tap and seeing neurologists, and I’m just so beside myself because I don’t understand all the things he’s saying to me. That’s why the MS Society became so important to me because they helped me understand what all of that meant.”
Getting to a diagnosis is often one of the first major challenges with chronic conditions like Multiple Sclerosis. The symptoms can be incredibly elusive and a firm diagnosis can take years.
“I’ve been in and out of hospitals since I was 17 and no one could ever figure out what was wrong with me,” she said. “My disease presented in a different way than other people with MS. I call it the disease of many faces because it doesn’t affect two people the same way.”
After getting support from the local chapter of the MS Society, Crista decided to get involved. She has grown into a passionate champion of the organization and individuals living with MS.
Eventually, she had to give up her work and focus on her own self care and making the best of living life with MS. There have been certainly been challenges, including a recent 10-day stay in hospital for what the doctors call a pseudo relapse. But even while having convulsions in the emergency ward of the local hospital, her and her husband Chris still managed to “face fear with funny.”
Crista was flailing away and doing very quick breathing. While the nurses were encouraging her to slow down her breathing, Chris was saying, “Push honey….harder!” That lightened the mood in the room and inspired some much needed laughter.
“I’ve decided that I’m not going to let this disease dictate my life,” she declared. “I’m determined to enjoy my life to the extent that I can.”
To that end, she recently purchased the “mother of all mobility scooters” which she has dubbed Big Bertha. The unit can go up to 25 km/hr and can travel up to 70 kms before needing a recharge. She uses it to give her the independence that she needs.
She has successfully transitioned from using the analytical side of her brain to exploring the creative side. Her stunning photographic compositions tell stories about hope, resilience, and inner strength. A solo exhibition was held at The Art Foundry that featured 14 works that were sold in a silent auction in support of multiple charities.
“I might not be able to go out there and donate my time because I’m sick, but the things I create I can donate to help raise money for other organizations.”
Crista was one of the 100 Faces of United Way that were featured during the 2017 Community Campaign.
IMPACT is a collaboration of The United Way of Fort McMurray, FuseSocial, Shaw TV Fort McMurray and 91.1 The Bridge. It is heard on Tuesdays at 10:30 am. It is rebroadcast on Shaw Cable 10.