In addition to the loved ones who’ve inspired our cyclists in years past, this year we ride beside a former Sundialer. 35-year-old Terri Verhulst worked at our flagship facility in Olds and lives with MS. She couldn’t resist the chance to join the 2019 Sundial team, celebrating the #ActsofGreatness that MS patients perform every day to overcome the physical and emotional weight of the disease and stay present in their families and lives. Today, she shares her story and shines a light on the support networks and innovative treatments that lighten the load for MS patients.
We chatted with Terri on April 29, 2019, about how MS affects her life and what helps her cope.
Hi Terri. Thank you so much for agreeing to chat today! It was exciting to see you’d joined the Sundial team for the MS Ride. You’re going to inspire us to outlast those long kilometres on our bikes.
Ha! Thanks. I’m excited about it, too.
When did you get diagnosed with MS?
I got my diagnosis in June 2015, but that was the end of a long process. The symptoms started about eight months prior, and it took a long time to figure out the cause. Once I knew what it was, I looked back and realized that 2008 was probably the very beginning.
How did your diagnosis affect your family?
I was 31 when I got the news, and my kids were 5, 7, and 9. It was so hard! We survived because I have a rock of a husband. I also have a really great support system. My mom is amazing, and I have a great team of doctors. My neurologist is always only a phone call away, and he answers every question I have. I’m really lucky. I know that’s rare.
Who brought up the idea of trying cannabis for your MS, you or your doctor?
I brought it up. The idea started in the waiting room at my neurologist’s office. There was always an issue of MS Dialog magazine on the table. It had lots of articles about whether or not cannabis could help with MS. It got me curious, but it took a while for me to ask about it.
When I was finally ready, my team was on-board with me trying cannabis, but they didn’t have the expertise to manage the prescription. The only place I could find cannabis care was Natural Health Services. They gave me a prescription and a list of licensed producers.
(Medical patients register their prescription with one or two licensed producers (LPs), such as Sundial. Once they are registered, patients can order their prescribed cannabis products from their LP’s website.)
What did you notice when you started using cannabis as medicine?
I started with oil about a year ago, and it’s been great.
I started with Phoenix Tears (cannabis oil). It was a really heavy dose that they use for chemo patients. I used it at night to help me sleep. At the time, I had terrible leg pain that kept me up all night. I would wake up exhausted, and the fatigue made it so much harder throughout the day to cope with my pain.
The cannabis oil was so good. I got such a good sleep. The pain was still there during the day, but it was a bit easier to work through it.
I carried on awhile, but finally I thought, “Why can’t I get real relief during the day?” I talked to my doctor, and we started me on CBD in the daytime. It took about six months to finally reach the dose that worked for me. I take 10ml of CBD oil three times a day, for a total of 30ml. It’s a high dose, but I’m in a considerable amount of pain all the time.
I used to take 18 oxycodone a day. That’s a lot of narcotics! I was not present. I felt like I lost months of my life–there are chunks of those months that I don’t remember. It was such a fog. I felt completely doped up. I hated feeling like that.
I was also worried about my kids. I didn’t want narcotics in my house. I’d heard about the opioid epidemic.
When I decided to change my treatment plan, my main goal was to get off the narcotics. Cannabis helped me do that.
That’s amazing. I’ve heard Dr. Cox, (Sundial’s Chief Medical Officer) talk about how many people he helped in his two decades of practice to come off of narcotics and other meds that have nasty side effects. He said that for certain conditions, like PTSD, cancer, and arthritis, the right cannabis medicine was gentler in terms of side effects and gave his patients better relief of their symptoms.
Cannabis also helped me quit cigarettes, which is a big deal if you have MS. In 2016, after my neurologist pushed me to quit, I decided to go for it. I switched to smoking cannabis. I did it at bedtime to relax, and pretty soon I found that I didn’t need cigarettes at all anymore.
How has your life changed since you switched to cannabis medicine?
Before the oil and the flower, I hadn’t worked in three years. Now, I’ve completely cut out narcotics. I only take gabapentin and cannabis, and I work 10-hour days.
I’m so grateful. When I got my diagnosis, my life was looking bleak. I was 31 years old and trying to imagine how I’d survive another forty years with my body deteriorating. How long before I’d be using a cane? Until I couldn’t walk?
How did you find the energy to keep going with that weight on your mind?
I wanted better for myself and for my kids. I just kept asking myself, how am I going to get better? I was going to find a way.
And you did! It’s inspiring to see how you faced the challenge with so much determination. You give us all hope.
I feel honoured actually that someone wants to talk about MS and the benefits of medical cannabis instead of arguing with me about how bad "weed" is for you.
That must be so frustrating. After fighting so hard to get through your disease, to have people react badly to your medicine.
It is. I get, “My kids can’t play with your kids because you smoke pot.”
It really skewed people’s perceptions, I think, keeping cannabis as a Schedule A drug (i.e. considered to have “no medicinal value”) for so long. With legalization, I hope it reduces stigma and lets people talk about their experiences with medical cannabis. It will help people see it as a medicine that helps.
Your story will definitely help fight that stigma. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk and letting all of us soak up some of your strength.
Thanks so much for allowing me the platform to raise awareness for MS and the benefits of cannabis! I really want people to have an open mind. Cannabis has changed my life for the better and I know it could help so many more people if we weren’t worried about the stigma. I’m kind of a rights fighter. I’ll sit down with you and tell you my story and help you see a new perspective.
Terri Verhulst was an Environmental Services Tech at the Sundial facility in Olds. She’s also a mom of three, and a fierce advocate for openness and understanding around medical cannabis.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system and Canada has one of the highest occurrence rates of this incurable degenerative condition.