Fencing: Eman El-Gammal's struggle against multiple sclerosis

Ghada Abdel-Kader, Thursday 7 Jul 2022

Retired Egyptian fencer Eman El-Gammal, who made two Olympic appearances in 2008 and 2012, is dealing with her struggles against the multiple sclerosis (MS) by pursuing a coaching career.

Eman El-Gammal

El-Gammal said on her Facebook page that she would produce videos to share her 10-year experience in dealing with MS as she hopes to help those who are fighting against the chronic condition.  

El-Gammal started her career as a foil fencer when she was seven years. She retired in 2012 when she was at her peak.

She later became a fencing coach and international referee, having taken several training courses in coaching and arbitration during her playing days.

El- Gammal trained junior teams and founded a fencing academy along with her sister in 2016.

"Most of the junior fencers who I trained joined the national teams and become well-known fencers such as Youssef Osama Shahid El-Tegany, Yara Sharkawy, Omar Bassem and Sara Nahas," she proudly said.

MS is a chronic autoimmune disease. It affects the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord. In MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy cells tissues that cover the nerves.

The symptoms of MS vary depends on which nerves suffer the damage. It is not an inherited disease and has no genetic or infectious factors. There is no definitive cure for MS. Treatment helps slow the progression of the disease.

El-Gammal was diagnosed with MS in early 2013. Early symptoms included numbness in her lips and face as well as a sudden weakness in her arm and leg, thus hindering her ability to carry out daily activities.

"After a month and half, I did not know what I had exactly suffered from. I went to several doctors. I did not feel any better with medications. Everybody was telling me you only need some vitamins and you will be better. Others said I had inflammatory or brain trauma," she said.

"After having an MRI scan on my brain and variety of tests, I was diagnosed with the MS disease … I did not know much about it.

"When I was first diagnosed, I was not terrified. I was so calm. My mother had a nervous breakdown and my sister took my medical file and asked different doctors for medical advices."

She travelled to Austria but "found the cost of medical treatment is too expensive" and thus decided to continue her treatment in Egypt.

Her first MS attack was very severe to the extent that she stayed at home and could not move from bed. She was unable to move or speak for more than nine months.

"I suffered from fatigue, blurred vision, numbness of face, loss of balance, weakness in my right arm and leg and unsteadiness," she said.

Her father passed away of COVID-19 complications last year. "I was too sad. I had an MS attack in my eyes. I suffered from blurred vision, rapid eye movements and eye pain," she commented.

El-Gammal stopped driving or moving alone because she suffered from unsteadiness and difficulties with movement in her right arm and leg.

"The MS disease is unpredictable. The MS patient cannot expect when he will have an attack. You can recover fully after relapse but it might take weeks or months for recovery. Some symptoms will not fully go away. It can be challenging conditions but you have to adapt to it in your daily life," she said.

There are common triggers that the MS patient must avoid, including direct exposure to sunlight, stress, anxiety and vigorous physical activities.

"Employers must support their employees who are suffering with the MS. Pay attention to the number of hours your employees work. Give them opportunities to get promoted and work in a healthy environment," El-Gammal said.

Sports effect

El-Gammal believes that sports have a vital role to play in the life of MS Patients.

It improves muscle strength and fitness and reduces pain and fatigue in people with MS.

It is also a safe and effective mean of rehabilitation in MS. "Fatigue is a common symptom of MS. MS people must have persistence and patience and must work hard on themselves," she said.

"It took a long time from me to return back to my normal life. I get tired but I never give up. I need to help myself to move on."

She says that physical activities must be part of the MS patients' weekly routine. An exercise program should fit your interests and abilities too.

"All exercises are recommended: Yoga, zumba classes, meditation, breathing exercises, dancing, aerobics, walking, running or cycling. A pool workout, swimming, water walking, or water aerobics can be great cardio," El-Gammal added.

After her last attack, she gained 24 kgs that saw her suffer from breath shortness and tiredness when walking up the stairs. She lost 15 kgs after consulting a nutritionist.

El-Gammal gives some advices for people who are newly diagnosed with MS.

"The earlier you get treated the more effective it is likely to be. Do not wait for symptoms to become so severe. Take medicines that your doctor prescribed to help prevent relapses and recover faster. Do not stop using medicines without consulting your doctor," she said.

"Eat healthy and nutritious balanced food. Avoid artificial coloring, artificial sweeteners and processed food.

"Make periodic blood tests and take vitamins and minerals supplements such as vitamin C, vitamin D, Iron, calcium if you have deficiency.

"Words of encouragement, honest compliments and the smallest act of caring from your family and friends really matter. It is important to consider the physiological status of an MS patient. It really has a direct effect on their health."

"My illness was a blessing. It shows me how much love and care I have from my family, colleagues, friends and fans. My family members were big supporter throughout the different stages of my illness. I am so lucky to have them in my life," she added.

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