"I'm tired of being the nice girl with the awful disease with the good attitude," said Martha Irwin, 26, fully recovered from the strains and pains it had just taken to get her settled onto the velvet-covered couch in the living room of he parents' Rockville home.
Like many multiple sclerosis victims, hers is a story of shattered dreams, altered hopes and great courage. But, Martha Irwin is using the resources of her church and the strength she has learned to draw from her religion to fight the battles MS constantly wages against her energy, strength and store of confidence.
Irwin, who grew up in the neighborhood of the Rockville Presbyterian Church that is around the corner from her two-storey red brick home at 105 Upton St., "got her diagnosis" while she was in college. Her world stopped.
"We are a future-oriented society. Young people have to make decisions 5 to 10 years in the future. MS people can't do that. They have to live for today," said Diane Alfes, director of patient services for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of the D.C. area.
"When I was in college, I was definitely out of it," Irwin said. "I was one of those kids who didn't join the church at the customary age of 12. Fortunately, my parents, who are very religious, didn't push me. I went through that rebellious stage when I was in college . . . Technically, I didn't join the church until I was 20," she added.
Irwin went on to get her undergraduate degree after the diagnosis, but ended up in "this horrible little job proofreading for a financial publication."
"I was working with the church's director of education in the senior high program. I loved those kids," she said.
"But, I knew I just had to get out of that (proofreading) job or go crazy. I was bemoaning this problem with various people, when the director of education said why didn't I go to PSCE (Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond)?
Now, into the third year of what is normally a two-year program, she has accepted the setbacks caused by a long hospital visit, and the frustrations of watching her peers go ahead of her because her body cannot keep up with her mind.
She has made an impact on the small 112-student campus in PSCE. "We have added handrails to the steps in all the buildings. We reassign classrooms when she is involved, to see that ther classes are always on the ground floor," said Geraldine M. Jones, dean of students.
"That school, like so many, was not really equipped to have handicapped students," said Irwin, who takes pride in the times when Dean Charles Melchert himself pushes her wheel chair from building to building.
Last year, Irwin worked with the teen-agers again at Rockville Presbyterian this time for field work credit towards her Christian education degree from PSCE. The ministers at Rockville were impressed with her performance and feel she "really bloomed."
Her mother, who has taught junior high classes there for years said, "Kids respond well to Martha.Those classes have an average attendance of eight to 10 a week. When Martha taught there were always 20. One week there were 30."
"One of the most touching things that ever happened to me is the Sunday I was invited to preach the sermon," said Irwin "I went back to greet the congregation after the service, and a 15-year-old boy kissed me. He showed me that kind of affection in front of his friends. I cried."
Irwin feels her success that fall was due to writing her own lessons and departing from the Presbyterian junior high textbooks. She went back to school enthusiastic about her future work with adolescents in the church.
Then she went to the wheelchair.
"Being a director of education at a church would require Martha to be on the go all the time," said friend and classmate Martha Starnes, 25. "She needs to take naps throughout the day . . . She realized all this would give her trouble on a day-to-day basis in the church The decision . . . took a lot of struggle on Martha's part. She got to the point where she wanted to quit school.
"When she got her emotions under control, she realized she didn't want to do that. She realized that she would be losing everything she worked for. She has a brilliant mind, and she realized that she would go to waste if she did that. She had to change direction.
Also, her deteriorating manual dexterity was putting her behind. "One of my teachers suggested I learn to write by speaking into cassettes. It took a long time, and I've had to develop my memory, but I can do it," said Irwin. She says that whole paragraphs get written and rewritten in her head before she speaks them into the recorder.
Irwin will not be able to work in person with the youngsters she "loves." She has decided to work behind the scenes, at her own pace, writting church school curriculum, living in her mind what she cannot do physicially.
A school friend, Ray Hickman, 24, talked of the times Irwin holes up in her room. "A lot of times a group of us will drop by to get her and literally carry her up to the third floor to watch TV or play cards."
"She is an inspiration to all of us because her faith is so strong. I think people sometimes don't understand it when she tells them. But Christ helps her get through.
"I know when my own strength has run out," said Irwin. "There is no way I could have gotten through last January. I really struggled. I'd say, 'Oh, there can't be a God. If there is, he or she can't be just and loving."
Then I took back to see where I've been and I know there has to be a God . . .I go through periods where I say 'It'd just be easier to go to bed and have someone take care of me. I wonder if I might live longer. I have to weigh the easiness of that against the quality of my life. Oh boy, this is a toughie. Quality of living is to give something to somebody else. I feel that I'm able.
"And, most of the time, I want to. I hate the word 'evangelize.' But it describes what I want to do, witness for Christ. And I know I would be useless trying to witness from a bed. I've got to be out there, showing people that if I can do it, they can, too."
"She really helps us," said Mardee Rightmyer, 25, a fellow student. "Some people may feel that she'd be better off to minister to others who have illness. But I feel she should minister to the whole person. She is a good example for them. She can also help those who aren't comfortable around handicapped people."
Martha Irwin already is thinking far ahead of many of those around her. She plans to challenge her church, and then help the church meet the challenge of this question:
"If we are indeed one body of Christ, handicapped or whole, single or married don't all of us have the same dreams, hopes, hurts, aspirations and agonies? I want to help the church recognize that."