It was March 6, 1992. Laura Van Camp had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year before and, for this formerly active horsewoman, life looked bleak. She couldn’t walk, couldn’t drive her car, couldn’t take care of her horses.
First published in the March 1997 issue of Barrel Horse News, written by Cheryl Magoteaux
MS is a progressive illness and Laura’s condition had certainly gotten worse since her first symptoms had appeared a couple of years earlier. Numbness in her legs and the inability to walk straight had been the first signs that something was wrong, signs that had appeared and then gone away several times.
Now, the illness had progressed to this. In her words, she had “no equilibrium, no balance” and people stared at her everywhere she went. She was humiliated and discouraged.
Fighting back had drained her.
“Physical therapy wore me out so much,” she said.
Mentally, she was at the end of her rope.
“Living with the unknown is the worse thing for people with MS,” she said. “Your body won’t do what you tell it to and you don’t have control over it, but there’s nothing wrong with your mind.”
Laura struggled to relearn how to walk – holding on to parallel bars.
“Set your foot down; lift your other foot,” she was told.
She pondered the advice of her physical therapist, who had suggested she quit the job she had held at Millsby Farins for the past eight years. She already had cut her time to four hours a day and co-workers were taking turns driving her back and forth.
Then she heard radio announcer Paul Harvey’s broadcast and listened in amazement as he talked about the discovery of a new drug, Copolymer I, and described how it was the most important breakthrough in MS research in years. Suddenly, Laura had a reason to hope.
“I called the local radio station in Meenah, Wis., WUFW, and talked to
Mark Lewis, who gave me the number for Paul Harvey’s offices in Chicago,” she said. “They referred me to the MS Society. It took me two hours to get through to them because they were getting so many calls because of the broadcast.”
The MS Society confirmed that the drug was going into research and one college that was going to be involved in the program was the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She immediately called to see how to become a part of the study and was told she would have to live within 150 miles of the university.
“That was the first little miracle,” Van Camp stated. “I live 148 miles away.”
The university office told Laura to get a referral from a neurologist, but the neurologist she consulted told her she’d never get into the study. With the huge number of applicants and the small number of positions open, the odds of getting in were just too remote. Undaunted, Laura began to collect all the tests and documentation she would need on her own.
Incredibly, she was accepted into the program, but she learned later just how close she came to not getting in. Jennifer Powell, one of the staffers at the university told her, “I remember the day you called. You were the last appointment I took before the applications closed. Then, after all the evaluations, we were supposed to take 12 people, but took 14. You were the 14th.”
For Laura, getting into the program was everything. It was a blind study. Part of the participants would receive the real drug and part would receive a treatment that appeared the same but was, in fact, just a harmless fake. Like the rest of the volunteers, she had a 50 percent chance of getting the Copolymer I and a 50 percent chance of getting a placebo.
“I never even considered the possibility of not getting the drug, or the drug not working,” she said. “I just believed so strongly that this was the answer for me and that I was going to get better.”
The program started the first of May. In two weeks, she was riding her horse again. Soon, she was competing in barrel racing.
When the two-year blind study was completed, in 1994, the records were opened. Amazingly, Laura had been getting the placebo for the past two years!
“Don’t ever believe that your attitude can’t heal you,” Laura said. “I had such a determination to make my life count and I really believed I was going to get well, and I did!
“Looking back, it would have been so easy to quit, and to not believe it could get better. I remember how hard it was to even take a shower and what a struggle it was to go out anywhere and have people always staring at me.”
In 1994, the open phase of the program had begun. Finally, Laura began taking Copolymer I and she, like everyone tested, has shown improvement from it.
Meanwhile, it was in barrel racing that Laura found her greatest freedom.
“When you’ve lost something before, you don’t take it for granted,” she said.
She joined the NBHA in 1992, and qualified for the Augusta 3D Finals in 1993, 1994, and 1995. She became the state director for Wisconsin in 1993. Since she has had that position, the Wisconsin chapter has grown from 40 to over 100 members and recently expanded from three districts to four.
“I believe in the 3D format and what the NBHA has to offer,” she emphasized. “With the NBHA, I can have a job and do it on weekends and still qualify for a world title. I believe the motto, ‘Beginners Can Be Winners’!”
Laura’s enthusiasm for barrel racing and the NBHA is contagious and her experience of living with MS is something that she uses in her NBHA position.
”I’m nobody special,” she said. “I love life and I want to make it work. I’m not unapproachable. If it’s important to one of the members, it’s important to me.”
And she also believes that no matter what the problem or what the goal, “Giving up is too easy.”
“If you believe, and honestly and truly want it, you can take it and turn it around,” she said. “I believe the reason I was able to come back is so I can help other people find hope in anything they do. I know the despair and I know how important hope is.”
She’s still quick to point out the importance of hearing of the program on Paul Harvey’s show.
“I grew up listening to Paul Harvey,” she said. “It’s something to think that he had that kind of impact on my life.”
And Harvey has not forgotten her, either. He has featured her story on his program several times and noted, “she took her disease and inspired me.” He has kept up with her via telephone.
“He said he would be honored to attend a barrel race to watch me compete,” she said. “I’d love to meet that man in person and shake his hand. He made an incredible difference in my life.”
The publicity she has received from having her story told on Harvey’s show means that she’s constantly getting calls from others facing the same sort of problems
in their life. After a New Year’s program this year where Paul recounted her story, she got a call from a doctor in Nebraska.
“He had a 25-year-old MS patient who recently had to quit riding,” Laura said. “He wanted to know if I would talk to her, if he had her call me, and I told him I sure would. I know how it feels when the chips are down and you have no hope.”
Laura sounded reflective as she remembered an early session with an MS support group.
“A person in the group told me that all I was doing was setting myself up for a fall with my false hope,” she said.
Her answer gave a clue to the fervor that drives her.
“I told him that I believe false hope is better than no hope.”