Most of us have plans for our lives; dreams that we hope will come true. Even so, unexpected things happen to all of us along the way, some good and some bad. Just like tossing a pebble into a pond, it causes a ripple effect; and we are never quite the same again. It changes us, sometimes for a few moments and other times forever. These unexpected things are the curve balls. They come flying at you, just when things seem to be going straight and true.
Matt Cavallo is no stranger to curve balls. Life threw him a very big one at the age of 28, when he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. He went from a young man with a bright future to the disabled victim of a terrifying disease with a questionable fate. Thanks to the loving support of his wife and his own spirit of strength, he has overcome many of the challenges associated with his disease. Since then, he has become a symbol of hope to others.
Matt now offers his services as an inspirational speaker and chronic illness coach. His blog, “Living My Best Life With A Chronic Illness” is a source of support, guidance, and a directory of resources for others in need. The story of his own diagnosis, and subsequent struggle, has been recorded in his book “The Dog Story: A Journey into a New Life with Multiple Sclerosis.”
When I found out about Matt’s story, I couldn’t wait to interview him and help spread the word about his story.
KLT: Before your diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis, what were some of the things about your life that you took for granted, which you now can deeply appreciate?
Matt: The thing I took most for granted was my health. I was twenty eight years old, in good shape and had never been sick a day in my life. I felt like I was coming into the prime of my life. Never, in my wildest dreams, would I have thought that I was about to experience what it was like to lose functionality from the waist down. When I couldn’t walk, I would lay in my bed and think back to the times when I turned down things like a weekend ski trip with friends because I didn’t want to take Friday off from work. In that moment, I would have traded anything in the world for one last run down the mountain. Not only did I think I wouldn’t be able to do things like ski again, but I was unsure that I was ever going to be able to walk again.
While walking was my main concern, I had also lost functionality of everything from the waist down. Things like going to bathroom by myself I totally took for granted, as I never had a reason to think I would need assistance in that area. The other concern was intimacy with my wife. We had always wanted to have children, and as I lay in my hospital bed, I thought those dreams were over.
When I was discharged from the hospital, I still wasn’t walking and needed assistance to go to the bathroom. However, little by little with medicine and physical therapy, I was able to regain my ability to walk. My wife wanted to ensure that I would continue walking every day, so she got me a dog for my birthday that year. I promised her on that day that no matter what my MS was doing, I would walk the dog once before work and once after work. It has been almost eight years now and I have not missed a day or broken that promise. No matter how fatigued I feel, I force myself to get up and walk so that I will never take for granted another step I am given.
While walking is wonderful, I feel my biggest victory occurred two years later when my wife gave birth to our first son, Mason. When I was in my darkest hours in dealing with my diagnosis, I thought that the dream of ever having a family was over. Now, I have two beautiful boys that I can run and play with like I always wanted too and will never take a moment I get to spend with them for granted.
KLT: What job did you dream of having when you were a kid? What were your career goals before your diagnosis?
Matt: Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be in construction. My dad was in construction and I used to like going to his job sites and climbing all over the big trucks. Before my diagnosis, I realized my childhood dream and was working as an analyst for a real estate development firm in Boston. In my book, I talk about how scared I was to approach my boss or tell anyone in my company what was going on with me. I was afraid that they would look at me differently and that I they would eventually find some way to let me go. Much to my surprise, my company valued my contributions and let me stay on despite my diagnosis. A down economy in 2008 eventually led to the company shutting down and me losing my job. However, at that time I decided that my true calling was in health care and helping people like me navigate the course of chronic illness.
KLT: Since the onset of your MS, obviously many things have changed for you. What are the best things that have happened to you since then?
Matt: The best thing that happened to me is the sense of urgency that was created by my diagnosis. When I was in my twenties and healthy, I was focused on work and not much else. I wasn’t living for myself or accomplishing the things I really wanted to. Once I was diagnosed, I felt a sense of urgency to do something to make a difference. So, I sat down to write my memoir. Finishing The Dog Story and having it published is something I never knew I could accomplish in life. The big surprise is how well my story is being received. People are writing me from all over the world saying how my story has touched them and given them the strength to know they are not alone.
KLT: What opportunities have you been presented with because of your MS, that you would not likely have had otherwise?
Matt: I never would have guessed the opportunities that my MS has presented me. After I finished the book, I started motivational speaking and to date have spoken at over fifty venues all over the US to thousands of people. I participated in an MS Yoga DVD with Baron Bapiste that was featured on Good Morning America. I also got to meet Ann Romney during the filming of the Future of MS documentary. However, the most meaningful experiences have been all of the one on one interaction that I get with patients like myself.
KLT: It goes without saying, that your work to help others with MS in dealing with their own challenges has been life altering for a great many people. Were it not for your own struggle with MS, they would never have been able to get that influence from you. Do you care to share any personal story from an interaction with someone you met, who may also have influenced your life or touched your heart as well?
Matt: I got an email from a woman whose husband had been diagnosed with MS. She said that he did manual labor and did not know how to talk about what he was going through. Instead he shut her out and became reclusive and depressed. It was getting to the point where the way he was handling his illness was pushing his wife away. She feared that the marriage may end.
Then, a friend of hers had recommended my book to her. She said in her email that they both read my book. They laughed, they cried and he began to relate parts of my story to her that he could not talk about. She said that once he read my story he began to change. He started to be less depressed and started opening up to wife about what he was going through.
It was humbling to know that my story could have that kind of affect not only another person, but a relationship. This email inspired me to keep writing and I am currently working on second book. I want to thank everyone out there for all of the wonderful feedback. I never knew my writing would be so well received. I write because you inspire me!
KLT: If you could give any piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Matt: The advice that I would give to myself is to never give up. In my darkest hours with my diagnosis, I would stay depressed in my house for days at a time. I had given up on myself and any semblance of a normal life. I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself and feeling that life was over. Little did I know that life was just beginning and that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. Before I set out and accomplished anything, I had to start believing in myself and realize that my life was not over. Once I did that, I went on to accomplish things I had never dreamed of before getting sick like obtaining my Masters and publishing my memoir. Just remember that if I can do it, you can too!
KLT: What is one little known fact about you?
Matt: The little known fact about me is that I love to cook! There is a strong correlation to chronic illness and diet. Since being diagnosed with MS, my wife and I have been researching diet and supplement options that are considered good for a person living with MS. While there are hundreds of diet books out there, one thing is consistent with all of them. Try to shop on the outside aisles of the grocery store. The inside aisles all contain processed foods containing tons of sodium and sugar. Living with small children makes it especially hard to maintain a good diet. I will tell you that I definitely feel a difference in my fatigue levels when I dont follow my own advice!
KLT: As a person with a MS, how has your life been enriched by the challenges you have had to overcome? What are the positive effects your diagnosis has had on your family?
Matt: The challenges that we have had to overcome have been the positive effects on my family. When I was twenty eight, I lost functionality from the waist down. When I was twenty nine, I went blind in my right eye. When I was thirty, I had a cognitive relapse that zapped my short term memory and speech. During this time, our vows of in sickness and in health were truly tested and tried to the fullest. This has made our relationship stronger and though it continues to be tested, having gone through all these struggles early in our marriage have prepared us to overcome any challenges in the future.
K. L., I want to thank you for your support and for featuring me on your blog. I really appreciate the opportunity chat about MS, overcoming adversity and living well despite the challenges of chronic illness. If any of your readers want to learn more about me they can find me on Facebook, Twitter or www.mattcavallo.com. If you are interested in purchasing my book it is available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble or in any E-Reader format. Thank you again K.L. and thank you to all your readers.