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Golf Fore Erin at GH Golf Club

Matt DeYoung • Sep 13, 2017 at 12:00 PM

GRAND HAVEN TWP. — Deep down, Erin Walkotten knew something was wrong.

But the assistant golf professional at Grand Haven Golf Club wasn’t eager to head to the doctor to find out what was ailing her.

It took an ultimatum by the course’s head pro and Erin’s friend, Kirk Sherman, to convince her to seek help.

“Kirk caddied for me in a PGA Player Ability Test,” said Walkotten, 30. “My putting was really off, and there were multiple times that he looked at me and said, ‘Are you OK?’ I stumbled a few times, and struggled putting the clubs back into the bag.”

Sherman said that’s when he first noticed something was wrong with Walkotten.

“Then one time at work, I asked her to go out to the starter and ask him a question,” he said. “She came back and looked at me and started trying to talk, but she could only mumble. I was really worried for her. I don’t know, is she having a stroke? Then she bounced right out of it just like that and was fine.”

Sherman said he realizes now that he should have recognized the symptoms sooner. His mother, Betty, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Kirk was in high school, and she lived with the disease until she died in 2003.

“I had been around it my entire life, but you don’t think someone 28 years old is going to have MS,” he said.

But that’s exactly what Walkotten was diagnosed with.

Taking the plunge

In October 2015, Walkotten finally succumbed to Sherman’s urgings and visited her family doctor, who sent her directly to the hospital.

“I was in the hospital waiting room and the nurse came in and said, ‘Are you ready?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Sure,’ and started following her, and that’s when I lost the entire left side of my body. Thankfully, my mom was there to grab me or I would have hit the floor.”

Walkotten underwent an MRI, and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and the body.

The result?

“You literally have to think, instead of just walking,” Walkotten said. “You have to think — right foot, left foot, right foot.”

Fortunately, Walkotten was diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS, which typically strikes people in their 20s or 30s. When treated with medication, the disease can go into remittance, but there’s always the chance for relapses, when your symptoms return.

Walkotten currently injects herself with the drug Rebif three times a week.

“I’m always going to have it … but we have it under control right now,” she said. “The medicine is what’s keeping it at bay.

“I was lucky,” she continued. “They gave me a couple of options to look at, and I didn’t know which one I wanted, so I asked their opinion. They said we’ve had the best luck with this, and I said, ‘OK, that’s the one I’ll do.’ I just happened to get lucky. This was my first one and it’s worked. There are a lot of people I know who have been on 4-5 different medicines and can’t get them to work for them.”

‘The new me’

Walkotten realizes she’ll never feel like she did before the onset of MS, but she’s done the best to get on with her life.

She’s back as the assistant golf pro at Grand Haven, where she gives lessons, organizes the club’s leagues and works in the pro shop.

Her speech may be a little slower than it was previously, and her symptoms worsen in the cold.

“Most people with MS have a problem with heat,” she said. “I’m a little bit different. I have a problem when I get cold, and I’m cold quite often. It’s the new me. I’ve come to realize things aren’t going back to the way they were.”

Now Walcotten hopes she can raise awareness about the disease.

“I want to bring attention to it. I waited too long to go in,” she said. “I could have started the medicine earlier. The results would be the same, but I wouldn’t have caused as much damage to my brain.”

Looking back, Walkotten realizes she began struggling with the onset of MS when she lived in Florida several years ago.

“I’d call my mom and say, ‘I just tripped over my own two feet,’” she said. “Now we’re putting that together.”

Walkotten has always been close to her family — her parents and three siblings — and they’ve been extremely supportive of her since her diagnosis.

Sherman has also been very supportive, she said, as has her entire “family” at the golf club.

That support will be on display Sunday, Sept. 17, when the club hosts “Golf Fore Erin” — a special day of golf to raise money for Walkotten and for multiple sclerosis research.

“It’s just going to be a fun day to show some MS awareness to people who might not be aware of it,” Sherman said. “It was a significant part of my life — my mother had it. We sold some sponsor signs, and if people would like to donate, we’re going to have a fish bowl in the pro shop.”

Sherman said anyone interested in golfing Sunday can call the pro shop at 616-842-4040 to learn about special rates for the day.

Artistic touch

Erin’s mom, Kelly Walkotten, is a prominent wildlife photographer. Her friend and fellow photographer, Rebecca Humes, came up with a project called “You Don’t Look Sick to Me.” She found two dozen subjects — people who look fine on the outside but are dealing with various diseases or illnesses on the inside.

Erin is one of her subjects.

Humes’ project was entered into last year’s ArtPrize in Grand Rapids.

“My goal for this project is to bring awareness to the plight of invisible illness,” Humes wrote. “I've photographed 24 people each struggling with different afflictions, myself included. I will use doors to tell my story. The portrait will go on the outside of the door, looking like everyone else. When the door is opened you see the whole story.”

 

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