DJ Jill McLaren talks of battle with MS

MS campaigner Jill McLaren fighting on and enjoying life with her children Lily and Oliver. Picture: Neil Hanna

MS campaigner Jill McLaren fighting on and enjoying life with her children Lily and Oliver. Picture: Neil Hanna

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EVERY morning for five years, people in Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife would wake to the voice of Jill McLaren – tuning in as she delivered a well-timed caustic remark to her co-host Andrew “Boogie” Bouglas on Forth FM’s breakfast show.

She was a permanent presence at charity dinners. Her face, alongside Boogie’s, adorned the sides of the city’s taxi cabs. She was even reproduced in cardboard to greet people as they filed into the arrivals hall at Edinburgh Airport.

They were heady times indeed, but since 2008 the red-headed DJ has been silent. She was made redundant by Forth in a presenter reshuffle, but given her profile and popularity with listeners, you might have expected her to pop up on another station, it’s a small world after all in Scottish commercial radio.

But for those five years as she made listeners laugh, Jill was hiding a health secret. In fact, it was secret she’d been keeping since May 2002, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).

“It happened just three months after I married Jason,” she says, as we sit in her Drumbrae living room, listening to the chatter of her three-year-old twins Oliver and Lily as they play outside. “I had had some numbness in my feet and strange sensations in my neck and back, so I’d been to my GP and been tested for all sorts of things, including vitamin deficiencies, and they all came back normal.

“So I was put on a waiting list for an MRI scan as a final check then in the May I had my first proper attack. I literally couldn’t stand up. The previous day I’d felt very dizzy, but the doctor thought it was an inner ear infection. But at 2am on the Monday I tried to get up to go the loo and I couldn’t stand, couldn’t walk . . . I had to wriggle on my back. I was so panicked I started hyperventilating. Jason called an ambulance and I was taken to the infirmary. I was being very sick as well.

“It was terrifying. I had no idea what was happening to me. To be honest I thought I was going to die.”

Jill mentioned to the doctors that she was waiting for an MRI. “It was like a lightbulb moment,” she recalls. “They immediately sent me to the Western and the Department for Clinical Neurosciences and I got the scan the next day. That’s when they told me they had found lesions and I had MS. I was 28 and I thought ‘I’m going to be in a wheelchair’.”

MS is a condition which affects the central nervous system, and is thought to be more common in countries further from the Equator because of a link to a deficiency of Vitamin D. Scotland has one of the worst rates of MS in the world, and it’s far more likely to affect women than men.

At the time of her diagnosis Jill was employed by Beat 106, and she moved to Forth a year later. “I think I went back to work too early after that first attack,” she says. “Although my boss at the time said that he just wanted me to get well, I just wanted to get to work. But I had a relapse within a year. This time it was the optic nerve that was affected and I suffered for weeks with hardly any sight in one eye. Eventually I was given a course of steroids and the day after I took them I could see again.

“But the relapse meant that I was able to go on the Interferon drug, injecting myself three times a week. It wasn’t much fun, but I felt fine on it and I didn’t have any relapses.”

Jill was diagnosed with relapsing and remitting MS, which means she has a distinct attack and then the symptoms fade away, either partially or completely. Around 85 per cent of people with MS have this type.

“In 2008 I had to come off the drugs because I wanted to start a family. I’d lost my job at Forth, and I had to wait three months for the drugs to leave my system, and as soon as they did I had another attack. That meant more steroids, which worked, but I felt rubbish.

“I wanted to get well, to feel well, so that’s when I started acupuncture. I still go to see Juliet Edmonds and she’s worked wonders. It gave me more energy, as being really tired is a major symptom of MS, and by mid 2009 I was at the gym using the treadmill and swimming twice a week. By the September I was pregnant.”

Today, she is managing her condition through acupuncture but intensive physiotherapy at the Astley Ainslie hospital – something she says she’d encourage every person with MS to demand from the outset of diagnosis. Because I hadn’t had any feeling in my feet for so long I’d over-compensated and had developed a limp,” she says. “But after starting physio, I can walk so much better. There are times when I’ve even walked normally,” she says.

She adds: “I’d like to be go back to work in radio, but right now I’m enjoying being able to be at home with Lily and Oliver.

“I hosted my first charity fundraiser in years recently and I realised I can still do it. Sadly, it was in memory of my cousin’s husband, Lee, who died from stomach cancer last year aged just 32.”

She added: “I never told anyone about the MS when I was diagnosed because I didn’t see any reason to – at least until I had an attack. I didn’t want to be treated differently, and I still feel the same way.

“I’m fine, my life is fine and I’m not in a wheelchair – I would like people to realise that an MS diagnosis doesn’t mean your life is over.”

• For more information on MS, visit www.mssociety.org.uk

100,000 sufferers across the UK

• More than 100,000 people in the UK suffer from Multiple Sclerosis, it’s normally diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40, with women three times more likely than men to develop it. Scotland has one of the highest rates in the world.

• MS affects the central nervous system – the brain and spinal cord nerves which control bodily functions. The immune system attacks the myelin coating which protects nerve fibres, damaging the nerves and causing them to malfunction.

• There is no known cause or cure for MS but drug treatments mean people can live with the condition for years.

• The physical symptoms include vision problems, balance problems, dizziness, fatigue, bladder problems and stiffness and spasms. But MS can also affect memory, brain function and emotions.

• There are four different types of MS: relapsing and remitting, secondary progressive, primary progressive and benign.

• There are drugs to help manage the condition, but exercise, diet, complementary therapies and physiotherapy can also help.