Pambula Beach’s Tina Stahmer is 45, bright and attractive, and when you meet her for the first time, there’s no outward indication that Multiple Sclerosis is slowly shutting down her physical and mental functions.
Then you notice a slight shake in her hand and when she speaks her voice has lost some of its timbre. Walking to the couch for a photograph is an effort, and when other people in the room speak at once there are little signs of exasperation.
“I had the first attack in 2007,” she said. “I was at work and my right arm was paralysed. They took me to the hospital and did lots of tests, but even though I was really sick, they wanted to see another full attack before they would diagnose me and that happened in 2009.
“It was a relief to actually know what it was after two years of waiting and then they tried me on every single drug that was available that they could use, but they all failed. The symptoms were progressing, like cognitive as well as physical.
“Cognitive is to do with visual as well as understanding. I can’t go out to lunch with more than two or three people, because it makes my voice get really weak – it’s something about hearing something and being able to concentrate on what people are saying when a lot of people are talking.
“I used to be able to read books, but if I read one page now I get really fatigued so my brain’s not right and it’s slowly getting worse. It also affects moods and my short-term memory is not as good.”
Other symptoms she suffers include slow balance and co-ordination difficulties, extreme fatigue, tremors, numbness, heat and noise intolerance, dizziness, her head nods, arm and hand paralysis, vertigo, head pain and extreme weakness.
Five years ago, Tina was a successful businesswoman in Melbourne having built up clothing shop ventures in St Kilda and Balaclava, and if she was suffering the more common form of MS, she might still be leading a relatively normal life.
Even two years ago, soon after moving to Pambula Beach to be close to her parents, she was able to walk a kilometre on the beach, but her deterioration since then has been dramatic.
“I sit here and think, I used to do all that stuff. That’s the really frustrating thing,” she said.
“It’s a really aggressive form – my neurologist says it’s severe, aggressive MS. In most cases of MS, people can go all right for 20 or 30 years without too much trouble, but mine is so bad that all the drugs have failed me. If I don’t have the operation, I’ll be in a nursing home in five years.”
The operation is a hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) – a bone marrow transplant with strong chemotherapy to eradicate the immune system, after which her own bone marrow stem cells would be used to reboot the immune system.
It takes three months with a 12-month recovery period and is the same treatment that has been used for Leukaemia patients for 25 years.
“It’s a life-threatening operation but I’m prepared to try that,” Tina said. “For 85 per cent of people, it will halt the progress of the disease and it will go into remission – that’s the best case scenario and that’s what I’m aiming for.”
The treatment will cost a lot of money, particularly if she has to travel overseas to receive it, so a group of her closest friends have rallied to her side to raise funds.
Michelle Collins, Leesa Stewart and Nicky Bamford are all Tina’s school friends and have each at different stages moved to Pambula Beach. Tina’s partner Andy Stenford has given up work to care for her and together with her mother they have been working on fund-raising ideas.
“Our first fundraiser is a raffle with first prize being a luxury weekend in Melbourne valued at over $3000,” said Michelle.
Tickets are available from Little Bottler Pambula, Bendigo Bank Pambula, Eve of Pambula and Broken Oar Pambula Beach. The raffle will be drawn on Thursday, October 25 with winners notified and names published in the Merimbula News Weekly on October 31.
If you’d like to help Tina, donations can be made through ‘Something for Tina’ Bendigo Bank (Australia) BSB: 633 000 Acc: 146 882 576, or visit the website tinasten.wix.com/pleasehelptina.