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The Russian concert pianist showing Hong Kong’s multiple sclerosis suffers that disease does not have to mean an end to happiness and a productive life

Bedridden in her 20s, it took doctors 14 years to diagnose Olga Bobrovnikova’s condition. Her love of music sustained her, even in the dark times

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 5:31pm

The crowd simmered down when Olga Bobrovnikova took the stage. All eyes were on the 50-something pianist, who lifted her hands exquisitely and gently placed her fingers on the keys.

When she begins to play, she invests her emotions into each note. Melodies waft through the air and across the room. 

The Russian-born musician was rehearsing for a piano recital that took place on May 19 at the Helena May building in Central, Hong Kong, to raise awareness of multiple sclerosis, a rare and incurable neurological disease that affects the central nervous system including the brain, spinal cord and eyes.

Bobrovnikova’s performance is filled with poignancy. An MS sufferer herself, it took nearly 14 years for doctors to diagnose a disease she has now been living with for three decades. Throughout the uncertainty, she learned to live with her symptoms.

The first signs of the illness emerged in 1986, when she was only 20 years old and studying at the Moscow Conservatory.

“My lower body just all of a sudden gave out one day and I was completely numb from the knee down,” Bobrovnikova says. The symptoms persisted for two weeks.

“My mum took me to a neurologist but MRI scans weren’t common back then, and no one knew what it was at the time, so we just let it go.” 

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Months passed before she regained any feeling in her legs, and then her condition deteriorated.

“I had to cancel a few of my shows, which is very serious, because my body was slow to recover and I had no energy to play,” she says. “It affected my performance on three levels: physically, mentally and emotionally.

“My sight was worsening, my coordination skills were dwindling. It became harder to play the keys and difficult for my leg to press the pedals.” 

However, she did not let her health struggles dull her love of music. 

I was completely bedridden...I had music playing at my bedside at all times
Olga Bobrovnikova

“I was completely bedridden. But that didn’t matter because the most important thing was to continue to be motivated, and I was driven by positive and active music,” she says. “Even though I wasn’t able to play for a while, I had music playing at my bedside at all times.” 

It wasn’t until late 2000 that she was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, after collapsing on the Brussels Metro. 

Within months she was put on an injection treatment with a drug to help with the severity of relapses, while slowing the pace of disability.

The renowned pianist has been symptom-free ever since.

“To me, music and multiple sclerosis are inseparable, they have become one journey. Music is a way out of my condition and is the guidance towards the challenges, the new discoveries and relationships with people,” she says.

“I don’t give up, it’s not my character to do so. Of course there are ups and downs but even during the darkest times, I look at the good. When the doctor told me I was diagnosed with MS, I thought to myself: the bad news is I have this illness but the good news is, there is a new treatment for me to tame the disease from worsening.”

It is estimated that around 500 people suffer from the condition in Hong Kong. Among them is Wong Siu-ping, who started to experience symptoms in 2006. His story is similar to Bobrovnikova’s.

“There was a day, I remember vividly, when my left arm became completely numb. I brushed it off thinking it was due to overworking my left arm because, as a cartoonist, I draw and fill in shadow for hours at a time,” the 41-year-old says.

That went on for two years without Wong seeking help. After his vision began to deteriorate, he started to realise there may be more to it than just having a sore arm.

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“I developed double vision, which affected my drawings. I found myself shading the wrong areas, or mistaking one line for two,” he says. “That was the moment I knew it was something serious.”

Over the next couple years, Wong was in and out of hospital as his condition worsened. Symptoms resurfaced even after he was put on injection treatment, and this time the infection got to the nerves in his face, paralysing one side of it. His worrying health forced him to temporary leave the illustration desk.

“One of the mistakes I made was not going to the doctors soon enough,” Wong says.

And he was right, according to Dr Richard Li , vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Multiple Sclerosis Society. 

“It’s usually young people the are prone to fall victim to MS and, more often than not, they will think little of the symptoms, assuming they are just coming down with the flu,” Li says.

While this may be the case, Li stresses the importance of listening to your body.

“However, such irregularities should only last for a day or less. So if the symptoms, like in Wong’s case, are recurrent, your body is telling you something is wrong. Don’t dismiss the signs,” he said. 

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He uses the analogy of a USB flash drive to explain the disease. 

“It’s like an electric wire losing its outer plastic. So, your body will still try to recover itself, but if the balance cannot be triggered then the plastic stays broken off forever, which causes the size of the brain to shrink over time,” Li says. 

Despite not having a cure yet, both Bobrovnikova and Wong are living healthy and happy lives with the help of injections and oral treatments to tame the illness. 

A quick guide to multiple sclerosis

1. What is MS?

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system, resulting in damage to the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Symptoms often appear slowly at first, but become more severe over time. For most patients, symptoms such as numb limbs, balance problems or blurry vision appear irregularly throughout life.

2. How many people suffer from MS in Hong Kong?

MS is a rare disease. There are an estimated 500 people in Hong Kong who have been diagnosed with the condition. It usually strikes people between the ages of 20 and 40, and the local median age for the disease first appearing is 28. MS is more common in Europe and North America. According to Britain’s National Health Service, there are more than 100,000 people with MS in the UK.

3. How is MS treated?

There is no cure for MS, but there are treatments that can help relieve specific symptoms, ease the pain and help a patient to manage daily living.

Source: Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Neuromuscular Disease Association