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Singer and songwriter Victoria Williams was living her dream — touring around the country with singer Neil Young — when her entire life changed suddenly.
While she was touring in Cincinnati in the 1990s, Williams’ hands started to go numb. “I remember I’m trying to play guitar and suddenly, my hands don’t work,” Williams tells Yahoo Life. “And so then I just started singing acapella without the guitar. It was scary.”
This wasn’t the first strange symptom Williams had dealt with before. While in LA, Williams had experienced a “buzzing” sensation down her neck. She decided to see a chiropractor about it, who told Williams, “‘I think you may have MS,’” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘He's crazy. There's no way I have something big like that.’”
After her hands went numb, Williams was left feeling scared and wondering what was happening to her body. Neil Young’s stage manager told Williams that she had to figure out what was wrong with her. So Williams went to the hospital for a series of tests, including an MRI. “When they saw the MRI and saw these plaques in my brain, that's when they said I have MS,” says Williams.
Dr. Jeffrey Dunn, an MS specialist at Stanford Health Care, tells Yahoo Life that “the hallmark of the disease is the immune system is disrupting the central nervous system,” which affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. But because the central nervous system “controls our awareness of everything, MS can really cause any symptoms that a human body can feel, from the top down,” says Dunn, including numbness, tingling and dizziness, cognitive symptoms, fatigue and double vision.
Dunn explains that MS tends to happen in the “prime of life,” typically between 20 and 40 years old. He adds: “The last people you’d expect to have any serious illness are the ones that get MS.”
At one point, Williams’ symptoms became debilitating enough that she needed a wheelchair to get around. After several hospital stays, Williams, who did not have health insurance, was saddled with bills that she struggled to pay. So several musician friends, including Lou Reed and Pearl Jam, recorded Williams’ songs and made an album called Sweet Relief — taken from a song title of Williams’ — to raise funds for her hospital bills. “All these wonderful people, they were worried about me,” Williams says. “And I listened to it and I was just in tears. People covering my songs — quite an honor.”
Williams says that musicians are “always” doing benefits for people — “that’s what musicians do,” she says. That inspired her to start a charity for musicians, which she called the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, “to help other musicians like they helped me when I got sick,” says Williams. The charity provides financial support to musicians and music industry workers coping with illness, disability or age-related problems. “It’s the last thing people should worry about when they’re sick, how they’re going to pay for it,” she says.
For Williams, “music is always healing.” She shares that over the years, “music has been such a gift, and I feel so blessed,” adding: “It soothes my soul.”
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Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove