WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Master Sgt. Sharina Elrod, with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Inspector General’s office, and a Wounded Warrior Ambassador, said she couldn’t wait to join the Air Force, serving her country and seeing the world. In 1998, the self-described “go-getter” began her military career.
“While deployed for a year, I noticed some irregularities with my breasts,” Elrod said. “I decided to wait until after my deployment was up to get it checked.”
She said, “When I got to my next base, Ramstein AB, Germany, the doctors did some tests, and an MRI showed that I had a cancer that was benign, but it was on my pituitary gland and needed to be treated to stop its growth.”
Her doctors decided she would be given a medication, not chemo, to stop the tumor’s growth.
“I was on the medication for seven years, and I thought everything had stabilized,” Elrod said. “So after being stationed at a couple of overseas bases, I got to Hickam AFB, Hawaii, and I thought it would be a good time to get off the medication.”
Elrod said the doctors were pleased with her progress and agreed she could get off the medication. However, they wanted her to see someone in neurology, because they saw something else on her MRI that needed further evaluation.
“While there, I got the diagnosis that kind of changed my life in the military and changed me as a person,” she said. “I was diagnosed with having multiple sclerosis; they found a bunch of lesions in my brain, and at 34 years old, that’s not really something you want to hear, while you’re on this streak to greatness in the military.”
She said, “You pretty much see your life as over, in a wheelchair, alone, paralyzed and essentially dead before most of your friends and family.”
“I had to do research on my own, because as I was told by my neurologist at the time, there were many cases such as mine,” said Elrod. “They’re [the doctors] desensitized to autoimmune diseases; they treat the disease, but they don’t treat the person.”
She felt alone, and she had to find her own support and found a great volunteer opportunity through an Air Force Wounded Warrior Care event, overseeing the rowing event. There, she met a senior master sergeant who also has MS. He encouraged her to become involved as a Wounded Warrior Ambassador to tell her story about living with this invisible and silent disease. It affects her brain, spinal cord, optic nerves, causes problems with vision, balance, muscle control and other basic body functions pertaining to the nervous system, and it is a progressive disease with no cure.
“People assume you’re okay, because you’re not in a wheelchair and don’t look sick,” said Elrod. “It’s a silent disability, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We go on, but people can’t see it. They don’t see the tremors, shakes, and most importantly the fear.”
Elrod goes on to explain, “That’s where educating the public and leadership to know your people and talk to them [is important]. Ask them how they’re doing. Sit down with them and really get to know them, because you may have someone who is suffering from their silent disability and feeling alone and thinking about stopping the hurt and pain permanently on their own.”
Editor’s note: Master Sgt. Elrod is a married mother of one, and she is expecting another child soon. As a Wounded Warrior Ambassador, she often speaks at different events about invisible illnesses and dealing with depression.