Jeannie Mai Jenkins' Played a 'Supportive Role' in Helping Her Aunt Get a Multiple Sclerosis Diagnosis
Growing up in a tight-knit Asian family, Jeannie Mai Jenkins learned early on that everyone had each other's backs.
"I have an amazing, interactive family," Mai Jenkins, 44, tells PEOPLE exclusively.
So when her father's sister Linh showed a change in behavior 10 years ago, Mai Jenkins knew something was wrong.
"My Aunt Linh and I were very close," The Real's former co-host shares. "She just started pulling back on some of the activities that we were used to doing, going out on walks, even. She couldn't walk the same distance that we would want to walk. That in and of itself would be embarrassing for her, to decline going, or having to stop and take so many breaks. I didn't mind it at all, but after a while, it started to become so frequent, to the point that she just didn't even want to go on a walk."
Jeannie Mai Jenkins
Mai Jenkins also started noticing her Aunt Linh was having difficulties with other simple tasks such as preparing meals and getting dressed. Things got so bad that she stopped attending large family holiday gatherings, which made her depressed.
Aunt Linh visited doctors for 6 months to try and figure out what was wrong, but could not get answers.
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Eventually, Mai Jenkins and her family realized the underlying issue was the Vietnamese and English language barrier between patient and doctor. Once she and her family connected the dots and got everyone on the same page, they sought a diagnosis.
"It wasn't until my Aunt Linh started to go to different doctors, on her own time, that she found out she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis," Mai Jenkins shares. "At that time, it wasn't very understood, let alone translated into the Vietnamese language so that she could understand what this condition meant for her."
Jeannie Mai Jenkins/Instagram;
"The representation of doctors in the Asian community wasn't there. The language barrier was an issue, and it wasn't until my aunt really just went to find different doctors, and people like myself, who could come with her to appointments, that then the translation happened and she better understood what she was going through."
According to the Mayo Clinic, Multiple Sclerosis [MS] is a potentially disabling disease of the central nervous system where the immune system attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers. This causes communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body.
Once Aunt Linh received her diagnosis, everything for the family changed.
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"She did a bit of the work and found ways to explain, 'My hands don't move the way I used to tell them to move,'" Mai Jenkins shares. "'My legs get very tired, and my heart rate and my breathing is [not the same,].' There's specific things that she had to be really clear about in order to get the right diagnosis."
Jeannie Mai Jenkins/Instagram
Mai Jenkins has teamed up with Express4MS, a new campaign launched by biotech company EMD Serono, which encourages people living with MS to express themselves not just within their families, but also to their healthcare providers and to society, so their voices can be heard around disease management.
"The day that my aunt got diagnosed, is the day I feel like my family started to heal," Mai Jenkins, mom to daughter Monaco, 1, says. "We all began to reach out to her, much more, and to be more sensitive about what this is that none of us understood and knew about. It was my first time hearing about it."
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The Owls Brew Boozy Tea Chief Brand Ambassador vowed to help make sure her aunt knew everything going on.
"My role was to be super supportive and to open my ears and eyes and learn," Mai Jenkins continues. "It was to ask all the questions I need to ask, no matter how dumb I thought they sounded."
Joseph Keller/Amazon Freevee
"It was to check in on my aunt, to say, 'Okay, I'm hearing this from the doctor. What do you need from me? What do you want me to do, after hearing this earful of what the doctor was telling you?' So it was really about being number one priority, supportive for my aunt, and then number two, taking it upon myself to learn what I can, so that I understand my aunt and anybody else around me who might happen to have it."
Although there's no cure for MS, Aunt Linh has found ways to pivot to make things work for her.
"Anything with small buttons, she can't finagle," Mai Jenkins says. "But now, she's stopped buying things with buttons. Now she loves things like knapsack dresses, or bodycon dresses, where she just throws one on and it's done. Or, she's actually permanently had buttons attached to things, and then on the backside, she's had velcro or magnets."
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"Her coordination isn't the same with her hands. She doesn't feel comfortable to sit for long hours at a time, but she also can't walk far distances or can endure the nice California sun like she used to. If we were planning to go out for 30 minutes, it might just be 10 minutes. Those little adjustments made things so much better for us as a family, and therefore, as a better support to Aunt Lynn."
With a team of Vietnamese and English speaking doctors working together, Aunt Linh is able to manage everyday life.
"She regularly takes her medicine," Mai Jenkins says. "She knows exactly what it is and she meets with her doctor regularly to make sure to check in and see that things are consistent for her. She's living a very happy, content life now. She's thriving."