Moravian’s Sullivan Rises Above Multiple Sclerosis

PHOTO BY BRENT HUGO

Moravian sophomore attacker Danielle Sullivan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic neurological condition that affects the central nervous system, in the fall of 2017. She continues to battle through symptoms amidst a productive career.


Danielle Sullivan could think of one thing only when she got the stunning diagnosis from doctors that she had multiple sclerosis (MS) during her first semester at Moravian College.

“Can I still play lacrosse?” she said.

The sport means that much to the sophomore attacker, who quickly took control of what can be a debilitating neurological disorder to fashion the Greyhounds this season to a 5-2 start as their fifth-leading scorer. A loss to Swarthmore may have dampened the team’s March 20 fundraiser game for the MS Foundation, but it did represent just their first loss against a Division III opponent.

To be clear, Sullivan’s continued playing career in the face of a condition that basically damages or blocks the communication channels between the brain and the body represents a remarkable achievement, perhaps ironically, of mind over matter. But her painful reality of waking up to different symptoms each day may actually pale in comparison to what could have been had she not played lacrosse in the first place.

“If lacrosse wasn’t a part of her life, I’m not sure when or if she’d even be diagnosed, and she would be way worse off,” Moravian coach Kristen Nicholson said.

Like many medical infirmities, early detection of MS offers better prospects for doctors and patients to manage symptoms before they reach critical; ditto for detection in young adults vs. later stages in life.

One month after school started, Sullivan communicated a disturbing trend the night after playing in a single-day tournament. Earlier in the week, she couldn’t feel her feet, and that sensation had extended up her legs to her quadriceps.

“Ascending paralysis is a huge red flag. That got everything going,” Nicholson said.

Hospitalized for several days of tests, they finally revealed the devastating diagnosis. According to the MS Foundation’s website, the condition results from overactive immune cells that damage nerve fibers’ protective layer of insulation before doing the same to the actual nerve fibers. The destroyed cells are replaced by scar tissue, sclerosis, which disrupts the transmission of signals from the brain.

The site likened the condition to a cell phone charging cord that has damage to its insulation and to the now-exposed wires within, resulting in only a partially charged phone in the morning despite it having been plugged in all night.

Think of the ensuing symptoms the body might display in the midst of such internal chaos.







“I was numb for a bit, but after I took it all in, I realized I had a choice to make,” Sullivan said. “I could either be mad about it and just sit around, or I can make changes to my lifestyle for the better.”

Buoyed by doctors affirming, even encouraging, her to continue playing lacrosse because activity is a must for MS patients, Sullivan made a positive attitude and proactive research into the condition her priorities.

“This absolutely influenced her maturity,” Nicholson said. “Once it set in, she grew from it a lot. She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, like stone faced. We’ve had to encourage her to open up a little more; that we’ll be supportive no matter what. But she’s taken great command of it. She’s not just letting things happen to her.”

Attacking the complexity of symptoms with the same grit and shiftiness Nicholson said Sullivan uses on the crease, she first had to endure two rounds of steroids that brought about crutches just to walk without losing balance. She would soon learn that dealing with MS, like matching wits and skills against defensive players and coaches in a game, required the ability to experiment and adjust, repeatedly.

After graduating to jogging and then running again, all while earning honor roll status academically, she returned to the team for her freshman season. She started all 16 games and finished fourth with 36 points (20 goals, 16 assists). She’s taken the same proactive approach with lacrosse as she has with her treatment, stretching daily in the morning and taking an ice bath after a practice or game.

John Kakuvek Field
Members of the Moravian team decorated John Kakuvek Field in orange to raise awareness for MS as part of the Greyhounds’ annual charity game March 20 against Swarthmore (photo by Caitlin O’Hanley).

“Sometimes an activity will feel fine, and the next week, the same thing will cause pain,” Sullivan said. “But I know my body now.”

Symptoms from the condition can vary daily, as can side effects from medications. Because of that, Sullivan reports frequently to her doctors, often proposing adjustments. She’s currently on an injection of betaseron every other day, which, after some initial nausea, seems to have proven most effective.

“If she has a complication, she’s distinguishing if it’s a symptom or it’s because we did a heavy lift yesterday,” Nicholson said. “She has ownership. She’ll pull herself when she needs a few minutes. You’ll see her rolling out on the sideline. I’m so proud of her for tackling this the way she has.”

Ditto her teammates, who, unbeknownst to her initially, had selected the MS Foundation to be the beneficiary of the team’s annual charity game this season. The players donned orange scrunchies in their hair and decorated John Makuvek Field in the same color to raise awareness for MS. Attendees made donations to the foundation for research into a cure.

“It made me feel special that everyone was supporting me,” Sullivan said. “My coaches have supported me tremendously, and my teammates have always been there for me.”

Sullivan reported no additional lesions in her most recent MRI, a positive sign, no doubt. She likewise has left little question as to the power of positive thinking, adaptability and perseverance in facing any adversity, a lesson she’s hopeful others will learn.

—For more information on multiple sclerosis or to make a donation to the MS Foundation, visit msfocus.org.

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