LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Phil Sypula is a testament to what living successfully with multiple sclerosis is all about. The 50-year-old Sarasota resident and Florida native was enjoying his career as a lawyer after he graduated from Florida State University. But his world turned upside down 14 years ago when he was diagnosed with MS, a progressive neurological disease that causes damage to the sheaths of nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, resulting in numbness, speech impairment, poor muscular coordination, blurred vision and severe fatigue.
In Sypula's case, about 14 years ago, he started having difficulties concentrating and remembering things and was forced to give up his law practice because of his cognitive impairment. He now works at Publix, which he says isn't a bad job after all.
Sypula, who is a member of an active Sarasota-based support group called "Friends of Hope" A New Generation of MS'ers, was also deeply involved in helping organize the third annual WALK MS 2014 Sarasota fundraiser, held Saturday in Lakewood Ranch around picturesque Main Street adorned by two lakes. The event is sponsored by the Mid Florida Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Sypula, his wife and sister all took part in the 3K/1K walk, for which he single-handedly raised more than $2,500.
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"I knock on doors and get it done," Sypula said, who has been taking new oral medication and feeling much better. "I'm a positive person, and I believe there will be a cure."
"He's a walking testament to how you can be the best you can be with this disease," his sister, Aimee Barnes added lovingly.
More than 400 walkers and some runners participated in WALK MS at Lakewood Ranch, coinciding with National MS Week, which generated more than $40,000, with more expected to be raised in the weeks and months to come. Everyone from people living with MS to their families, friends, co-workers, kids and even dogs turned out in support of discovering new treatments and therapies, and, ultimately, a cure for the debilitating disease.
Approximately 70,000 residents in the Mid Florida Chapter are afflicted with multiple sclerosis, according to development coordinator Mary Healey, who says Lakewood Ranch is a great area to host a race with potential for growth.
"It's getting bigger each year with new teams, new committees and much support from the local community. We organized a new route this year, which is more open and visible, not to mention it's a beautiful day for a walk," Healey said.
Danny Pinho was out bright and early with his 2-year-old son, Matthew, and his wife, Emilie, who was instrumental in charting the new route for the WALK MS committee at Lakewood Ranch. Pinho, whose 32-year-old wife was diagnosed with the disease about 10 years ago, says it's been a blessing in a way.
"We've met so many wonderful people, and it's allowed us to get more involved and help people, so I suppose it's been a blessing," said Pinho, who credits Emilie's diagnosis with inspiring him to lead a healthier lifestyle.
The "Friends of Hope" support group is a resource for area residents living with the disease. President Chris Riceman says anyone is welcome to attend the monthly meetings in Sarasota, which often include guest experts and advocates who are well versed about the latest medical advances and therapies for MS along with information for caregivers.
"There's nothing like this where I come from in Massachusetts," said Sarasota snowbird Jack Spears, who attended Saturday's walk with his wife, Betty, who has lived with MS for 46 years. "It definitely isn't a pity party."
Anyone interested in learning more about the "Friends of Hope" support group can contact Chris Riceman at 941-276-2501 or email email@example.com.
Although a final tally of this weekend's fundraising will be announced next week, donations are still being collected by the Mid Florida Chapter of the National MS Society. Those who wish to donate can do so up to Sept. 30 by contacting the local office at 407-478-8880. Information about programs and services to support people affected by MS lead better lives can be obtained by visiting the chapter website at www.nationalmssociety.org/Chapters/FLC.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.com.