MS Patient Summit: The formidable Mary Baker

There is something about Mary Baker

It’s rare to hear somebody frightfully intelligent (Dr., MBE, BA, Hon Dsc) speak so clearly on a complicated subject like the brain. She manages to deliver a powerful message while maintaining a humble and likeable exterior.  If she was a rugby player, she would be Brian O’Driscoll. 

During her presentation at the MS Patient Summit in Lisbon, Mary described her work with the European Brain Council. 2014 is the Year of the Brain in Europe and their mission is “To protect, preserve, develop and nurture our most vital asset: The Brain”. Specific to MS, she said that “Everyone’s brain shrinks when they get older but in MS this may happen more quickly and starts early in the disease”. She also said that “Using treatments to protect the brain is critical as you cannot get back what you have lost.

You cannot get back what you have lost. 8 short words. They have stayed with me….

Mary also spoke about her work with Parkinson’s patients. She told us how it had been scientifically proven that London taxi driver’s brains ‘grow’ on the job. New recruits are ideal subjects as most cabbies take at least two years to gain ‘The Knowledge’. Through training, they become the Olympic Athletes of Memory. Their brains actually undergo a physical change in order to store the vast amounts of new information they must learn. Further, this physical change in part of the brain (the hippocampus) is largest in the London cabbies longest on the job! This suggests that the adult brain can refashion its anatomy according to the requirements of the owner. Have a look at this video. It’s really interesting stuff!

Unfortunately we don’t yet know how to cure MS or how to repair the damage done by lesions on the brain. While we are waiting for this, Mary spoke on what we CAN do. Things like: “Encourage societal awareness and responsibility. Advocate higher prioritisation of treatment for brain illness in EU and national health systems. Create an agenda around the importance of preventing brain illness.” In 2013 the Neurological Alliance of Ireland (www.nai.ie) asked you to give Ireland a red card for neurological care and rightly so, when you see how we are doing compared to other countries of similar population.

Why do we only have 33 neurologists when they have over 200? I waited nine months to see a neurologist after I was diagnosed in the hospital. I don’t know why I didn’t create more of a fuss about this. I guess I was at a vulnerable time and didn’t have much fight in me. I did recently get to give a government minister the postcard from MS Ireland's MS News magazine requesting greater access to neurology services, treatments and appropriate benefits and entitlements. It felt empowering to raise the issue and I hope it helps get the matter on the table at governmental level. Find out more information on lobbying your local T.D.

The brain is an amazing, baffling organ. It does so much in the body and we only seem to notice it when it goes a bit wonky or surprises us by doing unexpected things. Listening to people like Mary Baker - who are passionate about protecting, preserving, developing and nurturing The Brain - has inspired me to write this blog asking, how we can do more in Ireland for the Year of the Brain?

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