My name is Catherine Brent. I am 28 years old and I grew up in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I come from a large blended family, my mother had four children from her first marriage and my father had one. After my parents got married, they had me and then my sister. We won the genetic lottery and were both diagnosed with Friedreich's Ataxia almost 2 years ago.
I was diagnosed definitively in January of 2012. Although I was only diagnosed with FA recently, I started showing signs of neurological problems around age 5. I would trip and fall a lot more than other children my age, I lost my balance frequently, I had loss of feeling in my legs, no knee reflexes, and walked more of my tip toes. I was described by my father as walking like a drunk. I was diagnosed when I was 8 with Peripheral Neuropathy, and when I was 13 my diagnosis changed to Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy.
Through the years my balance and gait continued to get worse. I was a self-proclaimed furniture walker. I would hold on to things in order to keep myself balanced and would stare at my feet in order to see where I was walking because I could no longer feel my feet. I remember my younger sister telling me that people thought I was antisocial because I would walk with my head down and not acknowledge people in the hallways of school.
I did have my own issues with depression growing up. I didn't know anyone with a disability. I felt alone, because I didn't think that anyone could understand me. Don't get me wrong, I had absolutely wonderful friends that would make me feel a part of everything. I also had the most supportive family in the world. My mother made me believe that I could do anything that I wanted to do. She was my best friend. In 2000 when I was 15, I lost my mother to her own battle with depression when she committed suicide.
In the heartache of losing my mother, I continued to worsen physically. I could no longer just be the furniture walker that I was. I needed a person's strength to help me stay balanced. Luckily, I did have wonderful friends and a younger sister that would walk with me to and from class. My sister was always smaller than I was, and she was also very popular in school. I appreciated her immensely, even though I may not have always made it known. There were times that I would trip and I would bring her down with me. So, there we were, two sisters on the floor of the hallway at school. We would laugh, even though I know she must have been embarrassed.
When I was 17, I finally bit the bullet and my father started the process of getting me a wheelchair. My wheelchair was a godsend that let me get my independence back. My house wasn't wheelchair accessible in the slightest. My bedroom was on the second floor. The later years of high school were actually hilarious when I think about it. I would scoot up and down the stairs, and I even think I may have dragged my chair up the stairs a few times. Luckily, I have always had a lot of upper body strength and I haven't lost it.
When I graduated from high school, I attended the University of Georgia. They had a wonderful disability resource center and I also had two brothers that were living in Athens. When I was a junior, I moved off campus into a two bedroom house. I lived with my brother for a year and then my younger sister transferred to UGA and we became roommates. Towards the end of my sister's sophomore year, she started experiencing neurological problems. After 6 years of not knowing what was going on with her body, she was finally diagnosed with FA. I then got tested as well. We are both odd cases of FA. We both have one allele in the expanded size range and one in the normal size range. We were diagnosed because we both have extremely low frataxin levels.
During my time at the University of Georgia, I became involved with a student organization run through the disability resource Center, called LEAD (Leadership, Education, and Advocacy for people with Disabilities). During this time, I met a girl named Robbi Van Shoick. We became friends before my diagnosis with FA and throughout my sister and I's diagnosis, her family has been a great support system. Athens is a small town and we are always amazed that there are two sets of sisters here with this disease.
During the past couple of years, I have gotten back into acting which is my passion. I have done two wonderful shows with a local theatre group. I have also been a guest speaker twice in the class that Robbi co-teaches at UGA, "Communication with People with Disabilities". I also work in the records department of a non-profit called, Georgia Options. Georgia Options works with adults with developmental disabilities. Our mission is to get these individuals out of group homes and institutions and into their own home, so they can have life experiences like you and I. We live with FA, but FA does not define us.