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Home > MSAA Publications > The Motivator > The Motivator: Summer 2009 > Stories to Inspire
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Stories to Inspire

Multiple Sclerosis, Model Aircraft, and Making Connections

By Alexandra Howson

Photo of John Howson After multiple sclerosis left John Howson unable to work, he devoted much of his time to building model aircraft. The hobby kept his hands nimble, his mind sharp, and helped him connect with others.

My dad developed symptoms of MS in 1968 and was eventually diagnosed four years later. During that time he lost his job, family, and sense of self as an avid aviator. After a career in the Air Force, he worked as a payload dispatcher for commercial airlines. But he found that even if he couldn't work or fly planes, he could at least make them. So he retrofitted his home to accommodate not only his disabilities, but also his passion for making model aircraft.

Multiple Sclerosis, Occupational Therapy, and Individual Experience

The effectiveness of occupational therapy (OT) can sometimes be difficult to measure in a study setting. However, in the lives of people with multiple sclerosis, OT interventions are frequently reported to improve outcomes in functional ability, social participation, and health-related quality of life. Individual experiences tell the story of how occupational therapy makes a difference to those with multiple sclerosis.

The Long Sharp Pain of MS

In 1968, multiple sclerosis laid its claim on my father - a young, ambitious man from a blue collar 'holler' in Ohio. At that time, he was working as a transportation agent for the now defunct TWA. On one particular Saturday, he developed a headache that didn't improve with medication and became more intense over the next few days.

Difficulty in writing and walking followed, accompanied by fuzziness in his left ear - like the sound of many cicadas - which never really left him. By Monday, he felt so fatigued that he could barely work and he also had severe pain above his left ear. By Tuesday, his headache had increased and he fell twice at work. That night he drove home and never returned to the job he loved.

Photo of Alexandra & John Howson

Four years after the initial onset of these symptoms, my dad was finally diagnosed with MS. Over this time he lost his job; his wife and daughter no longer lived with him; and the contours of anything resembling the life he had made for himself were gone. He experienced depression and loneliness, while he struggled financially. What saved him, aside from his faith in God, was aviation.

Aircraft Model Making

Ever since he was little, my dad had dreamed of working with airplanes. He joined the Air Force, and following discharge, worked for the major airlines of the 1960s - Pan Am, Northwest, and finally, TWA. He was a disciplined student and a diligent worker with an encyclopedic knowledge of aviation history, aerodynamics, and aircraft design. His colleagues knew him as someone who could work any aircraft from any runway in the world, under any conditions. And he drew creatively on this knowledge as a person with MS. If he couldn't work planes, then he'd make them.

In the late 1970s, my father moved to Kentucky and remodeled a house to accommodate, as he put it, "handicapped living." He lowered countertops; installed cabinets with pullout shelving, a rollout cook top, and ovens with side-opening doors; fitted a Chevrolet van with a Braun automatic lift; acquired an Amigo scooter; and built a wheelchair-accessible addition to the house.

Aircraft Model Making Photo

He converted one of his rooms into a craft space where he could spend time making model aircraft. The drawers were filled with supplies: paints, glue, knives, and putty. The closet was stacked with boxes of models he bought in bulk from a mail-order company. He especially liked United States and British planes: Boeing B47 Stratojets, Whirlwinds, Tempests and Spitfires, Westland Lysanders, Sopwith Camels, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, Hawker, and even Spruce Goose. His favorite was the Boeing 707, the first United States commercial airplane.

Making model aircraft helped my dad keep his hands nimble. His left hand did not function well; on bad days, it dragged alongside his Amigo. But the process of modeling helped him retain a degree of mobility and dexterity. It demanded that he tear apart or cut the small plastic spars that attached model parts to the frame, paint each individual part, and affix these to each other to create a whole. One airplane could take him weeks to complete; he would work on it in short bursts throughout the day (which typically also included a careful exercise regime, naps, television viewing, and copying sermon tapes as a service for his church's outreach ministry). As occupational therapy, assembling models certainly enhanced his functional ability and helped him stay sharp.

Making Models, Making Connections

Making Models PhotoYet it was also more than this. Making models helped him connect with people, especially when his speech was distorted. At times he suffered from paroxysmal facial pain, but he seldom allowed this to prevent him going to church, even though he could barely talk. At such times it was difficult for people to understand him. But they understood what he was saying when he gave them a plane. He was telling them he cared about them. He was telling them that though he could not speak, he could still participate in the life of the church and contribute to the wellbeing of others.

People still remember the airplanes my dad made for them. Following his death in 1999, six weeks after the birth of his second granddaughter, friends and family recalled that they felt grateful they were included in his gift giving. For me, there's no doubt about the value of occupational therapy: through his painting and gluing, my father crafted not just model airplanes, but a life and legacy.

As well as being the daughter of someone with MS, the author of this article is a medical writer who has written books and articles for peer review, newspaper, and trade publications.

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Last Updated on Monday, 25 March 2013 11:55