A Father And Son’s Journey To Wellness And Hope
Health is wealth. When we are in a positive state physically, mentally and emotionally, we have the world by the tail. But in a heartbeat, all that can change.
Imagine you are a healthy, athletic 19-year-old who has just come back from a rigorous ride on your mountain bike. You’re kicking a soccer ball around in your driveway as you cool down and then, all of a sudden, you can no longer feel the ball under your feet. And in that heartbeat, life as you know it changes — forever.
“In a matter of 20 minutes, I experienced a combination of numbness and hypersensitivity. I knew right then that something was really wrong,” Mathew Embry, the 19-year-old in question, states.
After spending a few weeks in limbo waiting to see his family doctor, followed by another few weeks waiting to see a neurologist — who eventually ordered an MRI — Mathew, accompanied by his dad, Dr. Ashton Embry, a scientist, and his mom, Joan, a nurse, were given the heart-rending diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS).
“Even though I have a background in science, I didn’t know much about MS,” Dr. Embry says. “I was shocked when the neurologist said there was nothing that could be done about it.”
If you are unfamiliar with MS — an autoimmune condition that affects the brain and spinal cord — and you are wondering why an MS diagnosis is so completely terrifying, it can be summed up in one word: fear. And that outsized emotion of fear can be broken down into two components: fear of the unknown and fear of the known, both of which exist in the physical and emotional aspects of the diagnosis. The physical symptoms of the disease manifest in things such as loss of balance, spasticity and spasms, ataxia, cognitive issues and heat sensitivity. The emotional impacts manifest in bouts of anxiety and depression.
And with that, Mathew’s youth-driven plans, goals and dreams for the future were put on hold — at least for the interim, until the ramifications of the condition, the scope of what needed to be dealt with and how that was going to play out were assessed and understood.
“As a parent, it is the worst thing that could happen,” Dr. Embry says.
Understandably, the details of that time frame are a blur for Mathew — between the initial shock and the fact that 26 years have passed since the original diagnosis — but he does remember vividly one of the things the neurologist told him at the time.
“Don’t put on the concrete shoes and jump off the bridge just yet,” is the advice that Mathew recalls being given more than two decades ago. “My first emotion was shock; I didn’t know a lot about MS, but I knew it was bad, one which resulted in decline, severe disability and potentially early death. I was 19 years old and I was really scared.”
While Mathew went through a course of steroid treatment, which resulted in a struggle with depression, his dad was spending untold hours in a medical library at the University of Calgary, researching everything he possibly could about the disease.
In what he says was an incredible moment of serendipity, one of Mathew’s high-school teachers gave the Embrys a book on the value of adopting a positive diet regime.
Within six weeks, Dr. Embry had developed a series of protocols around diet and exercise, which Mathew embraced immediately.
“The science around the protocols of diet and exercise is solid — there is no disputing it,” Dr. Embry says.
“We Are Now Working With People Who Have Severe Disabilities In Hopes Of Stopping The Progression Of The Disease. How Do We Bring People Back Who Are Suffering With Severe Disabilities — That Is The Next Piece” — Mathew Embry
“There are certain foods that need to be eliminated altogether, and others that need to be reduced in an MS person’s diet,” Mathew concurs. “One of the worst things for people with an autoimmune condition like MS is to eat dairy products, including any kind of milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream, all of which need to be cut out of the diet immediately.”
“In fact, by eating dairy, you are telling your immune system to attack the central nervous system,” Dr. Embry explains.
Other products that need to be eliminated immediately include foodstuffs that contain gluten such as bread, pasta, cakes, crackers and granola bars. The high sugar content found in pop, sweets and chocolate is also a definite no-go. However, fruits and vegetables, low-fat animal protein such as skinless chicken, fish of all kinds and lean meat are recommended foods on Dr. Embry’s personally crafted MS Best Bet Diet.
“Once I started the diet, it took four to five months for my symptoms to abate,” Mathew states. “But, I really only had two choices: be in a wheelchair, or change my diet. I choose to change my diet.”
A minimum daily exercise regime of 20 minutes is also key to managing MS symptoms and includes cardio activity such as biking, hiking and swimming, as well as weight lifting and engaging in sports activities.
“It is a matter of fighting fears by putting your body in action,” Mathew says. “Exercise is incredibly important, because it oxygenates the cardiovascular system and keeps the muscles active.”
However, there has been a great deal of controversy around the MS management protocols championed by Mathew and Dr. Embry, versus those recommended by the traditional medical community.
In fact, neither Mathew nor his dad feels the MS Society genuinely champions options that are outside of traditional drug treatment protocols.
“I am not against drugs and, in fact, I believe that they do have value,” Dr. Embry says. “However, they are not a cure.”
The doctor’s main concerns centre around the relationships between the pharmaceutical companies and the medical world of neurologists and physicians, not to mention the MS Society, all of which he believes are tied to financial remuneration.
“Drug companies give money to neurologists and the MS Society in order to sell as many drugs as possible to maximize their profits. You have to consider the MS Society as a part of the complete medical pharmaceutical complex,” Dr. Embry states.
Interestingly, while the Embrys have invited the MS Society to meet with them on several occasions, they have only been granted one interview.
When asked to comment on the pros and cons around both the Embry family’s approach and that of the MS Society, Ian Royer, the director of public relations for the MS Society of Canada, stated in a recent email communication that:
“We support people making personal decisions when it comes to their healthcare choices, and strive to provide the most up-to-date and accurate information to assist people on their journey. We fund research that looks at several aspects of symptom management including diet and exercise as well as disease-modifying therapies.”
As far as supporting alternative drug treatment protocols, the MS Society of Canada states on its website, mssociety.ca: “Twenty years ago, there were no disease-modifying therapies for MS. Now, there are 14. It’s up to each person and their healthcare team to determine which, if any, is right for them.”
The site goes on to state that common tools used by people with MS for effective management of their condition include: exercise, healthy eating and looking beyond traditional approaches for holistic options. Although, the website does caution that “having a traditional healthcare team is a must for most MS protocols.”
Robyn (Baldwin) Pineault, who is now 40, is a former model, fitness competitor and CFL cheerleader, who was diagnosed with MS in 2014. Within a week, Pineault was hit with a loss of feeling in her limbs and heightened tingling in her legs.
“I tried to go through the five stages of grief as fast as possible in order to get to acceptance,” she says.
And so, after having an MRI and receiving the diagnosis, Pineault — who calls her condition a health “sidekick” — decided to start researching her condition and the methods and tools that would help her to take better and different care of herself. She developed and adopted new lifestyle regimens that centre around diet and nutrition (Autoimmune Paleo Protocol), exercise, quality and quantity of sleep, stress management and reducing toxic load.
“I knew it was something that I had to live with for the rest of my life, so I decided do something about it, so that it didn’t ruin my life or shorten it,” she says.
Featured on the MS Society website (under her maiden name Baldwin), Pineault states: “I have not been following the MS Society since they decided to feature me on their website. Other than a vitamin D study which I was a part of several years ago, and which took four years to be published, I just haven’t seen them having a focus on educating the MS community around holistic health.”
Dr. Terry Wahls, however, is living proof that Dr. Embry’s approach to managing MS with his conventions is not only hopeful, but also authentically possible.
One of the featured MS patients in Mathew’s 2017 documentary, Living Proof, Dr. Wahls had MS for 16 years and was by that point using a wheelchair. Having been referred to Dr. Embry’s protocols around diet and exercise — in 1996 Dr. Embry was the first to build an MS website, direct-ms.org — Dr. Wahls adopted the doctor’s suggested path to wellness as outlined in his MS Best Bet Diet and spent several months researching the list of food options she wanted to stress in her diet, including significantly increasing her intake of vegetables.
Not long after she started her new wellness journey, Dr. Wahls arrived at her staff office in a wheelchair, with cane in hand. She was able to walk from exam room to exam room to observe her patients, her cane the only aid. Interestingly, in that month, her brain fog had also dissipated considerably. Within months, Dr. Wahls was walking uphill without a cane — something she hadn’t done in quite some time — and before the year was out, she was able to get back on her bike again.
“It was a miraculous moment that showed me that recovery was possible if I stayed on the path, as laid out by diet and lifestyle,” Dr. Wahls says. “The description that it [MS] is only downhill is incorrect.”
Mathew, who has two children, 13 and 11, and who has been symptom-free for 26 years, is a successful television producer and writer. However, in addition to his busy family life and career, he is driven by his passionate belief that his and his father’s commitment to helping people with MS both fight the disease and, in fact, stop the progression is one that he is genuinely responsible for sharing.
All of Mathew’s work around MS — his ongoing videos and content on the Embry’s website, mshope.com — and his many speaking appearances at MS events, all of which are crafted to inspire and educate, are 100 per cent effected on a volunteer basis.
“Everything we provide is completely free — that has been our mandate from Day 1,” Mathew states. “I host a monthly Zoom Q&A the first Tuesday of each month on mshope.com and I encourage people to advocate for themselves and learn as much as they possibly can. People need to find the successes and develop their own road map.”
What’s next for the Embrys on their continued commitment to wellness?
Just 12 days after testing positive for COVID-19, Mathew ran the Oceanfront Half Marathon in Maui, Hawaii, and placed third in his age category.
“We are now working with people who have severe disabilities in hopes of stopping the progression of the disease,” Mathew says. “How do we bring people back who are suffering with severe disabilities — that is the next piece. We are looking at what is happening with stem cell research, as well as what is happening in the future with antivirals. There is also the possibility of a vaccine in the future, one that is linked to Epstein- Barr. Because we are so focused on viruses right now, it is a good time to be looking at it.”
Importantly, Pineault wants anyone who has been diagnosed with MS to know that it is not a death sentence.
“Embrace different ways to take care of yourself; it is important to understand that you can find new passions and projects, so that you can thrive,” she says.
“Although this is an article about MS, it is really the flashpoint for anyone who is really sick,” Mathew says. “For me, the dolce vita life now is defined by the making of choices in the now in order to make the now beautiful. The mission continues.”