Before I Dance: Combat Athlete Jodi Phillips’ Fight with Multiple Sclerosis


“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” – Muhammad Ali

Photo Credit: Martin Blais Aggro Photography

Female mixed martial artists are rare here in the Atlantic provinces of Canada, however over the past decade, women have been slowly trickling into local gyms. On September 19, 2015 at ECC 23, two of these female warriors won Fight of the Night for their performance in the cage as well as the respect of everyone in the crowd.

Jodi Phillips is one of the most determined, hard-working women I know and I was in awe of her grit and toughness. Little did my fellow spectators and I know that night, Jodi was fighting two opponents. One in the cage, and another in her body.

In 2018, after years of unexplained physical symptoms Jodi was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.

This is Jodi’s story.

My diagnosis is Multiple Sclerosis. MS is a progressive, immune-mediated disorder. That means the system designed to keep your body healthy mistakenly attacks parts of your body that are vital to everyday function. The protective coverings of nerve cells (Myelin) are damaged, which leads to inflammation causing scar tissue or lesions on the brain and spinal cord. These lesions can appear anywhere in your central nervous system affecting any part of your body. MS is a disease with unpredictable symptoms that can vary in intensity. While some people experience fatigue and numbness, severe cases of MS can cause paralysis, vision loss, and diminished brain function.

The Symptoms of MS

  • Vision problems: Visual problems are one of the most common symptoms of MS. Inflammation affects the optic nerve and disrupts central vision. This can cause blurred vision, double vision, or loss of vision.
  • Tingling and numbness
  • Pain and spasms
  • Fatigue and weakness: Unexplained fatigue and weakness affect about 80 percent of people in the early stages of MS. Chronic fatigue occurs when nerves deteriorate in the spinal column. Usually, the fatigue appears suddenly and lasts for weeks before improving. The weakness is most noticeable in the legs at first. It actually feels like lactic acid build up in your muscles and some days it’s like you are moving through mud.
  • Balance problems and dizziness: if you can imagine rolling with concussion symptoms it is the same, I often get sick and have nausea constantly
  • Bladder and Bowel dysfunction: A dysfunctional bladder is another symptom occurring in up to 80 percent of people with MS. This can include frequent urination, strong urges to urinate, or inability to hold in urine. This has been a huge issue for me when it comes to jiu jitsu 😦  My MS affects my kidneys and bowels which leads to certain complications where I end up being hospitalized.
  • Cognitive problems: About half of people with MS will develop some kind of issue with their cognitive function. This can include: memory problems, shortened attention span ,language problems, difficulty staying organized, Depression and other emotional health problems are also common. The cognitive problems are a little known harsh reality of MS as most people often associate it with physical disability. Jiu jitsu helps me because it constantly uses your brain to make connections with moves and flow. I currently see an occupational therapist to help me with work as I am a supervisor of a social work community-based team and sit on various boards. My memory is shot, I mix up words and sentences, and have a hard time following conversations.


“My memory is shot, I mix up words and sentences, and have a hard time following conversations.”

The Diagnostic Process

MS is an incredibly hard disease to diagnose. Over the past twelve years I have had what we now know were MS flare ups where I lost my eyesight for five days, would fall constantly, spent days in bed feeling paralyzed and had extreme fatigue. People chalked it  up to me over-training as I was always doing something like marathons, triathalons, muay Thai, MMA, and so on.

In March 2017 during jiu jitsu training and sparring at Wulfrun, I started to notice I couldn’t keep up and wasn’t recovering after training. I also felt like I couldn’t breathe. This started two years of hospital stays and surgeries due to complications from my kidneys. The last tournament I did in June 2017, I lost my first match and ended up in the hospital that night and for the next ten days.

They couldn’t figure out what was causing the fluid in my lungs or any of the complications so thankfully Dr. Williams, a neurologist was assigned to my case and thus started a lengthy process of tests – MRI’s , numerous blood tests, and finally a lumbar puncture which solidified the diagnosis of MS.

My brain and spine have lesions on them which show up as white spots. There is a certain protein that shows up in spinal fluid that can allow a doctor to say for certain it is MS. I started treatment right away with a drug called Copaxone which I inject three times a week in 8 different spots (arms, legs, belly, butt). This is not a cure, it simply reduces the frequency and severity of flare ups by 35 %.

Each time you have a flare up the damage to the nerve attacked can be permanent in which case wherever that lesion ends up is the part of the body affected. This is what causes blindness in MS as the optic nerve is often attacked, this is also my biggest fear as it has already happened to me.

A Life-Long Athlete

My whole life I always played sports – field hockey, basketball, cross country, badminton, whatever school sports allowed (I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s so there was nothing for females in Summerside in terms of martial arts). I continued with running and did marathons, I qualified for the Boston marathon and did that, then seven years ago started muay Thai, kickboxing, MMA and jiu jitsu.

Currently I am a member of Goodlife where I can do spin classes and weights. My partner Shawn has a cardio kickboxing class I help him with twice a week , and jiu jitsu.

The Effects of MS on Training

For two years since the first hospital stay (there have been nine altogether and six surgeries), I always tried to go back to a fundamental class and it would last a few weeks but then I would be sick and end up back in the hospital due to MS related complications with my kidneys.

Dehydration is dangerous for me because of my kidneys so I need to always keep as hydrated as possible. The problem, of course, is also lack of control of bladder as well because of MS. My kidney would develop infections and stones and cause blockages which would lead to hydronephrosis (swelling of kidney) which is probably one of the most painful things I have to endure. My kidney has gone through this numerous times and has been bruised – the danger is permanent damage in which it would not work anymore.

My last hospital stay and surgery was this past December and this is the longest I have been able to train consistently.  Getting over the fear has been the hardest thing, and to realize that the pain and nausea isn’t really making MS worse, just a side effect, and the treatment causes same side effects as well. The fatigue can be debilitating but you have to just fight through it. The dizziness is what affects me the most – it makes me feel sick every time I train and I often get sick, but people have gotten used to it. Since I started competition training I take Gravol an hour before each class.

The injection sites are painful, there are eight of them on my body and impossible not to get pressure on them rolling, but for all these issues I have learned to live daily with the side effects and to keep a positive attitude.

The most important thing with MS is to be physically fit, to eat a clean diet, and to keep active – not doing this is what can make you sicker. I can’t do MMA or spar anymore, which I really miss (I can and some people with MS still do combat sports, I have chosen not to), but jiu jitsu provides me that outlet to compete in a way I need to.

The Support Network

I am lucky that Professor Paul Abel keeps a safe academy – he is aware of everything and said to wear a rugby helmet at first to at least provide some protection for my head, always a mouth guard, and to pick my rolling partners smartly. He also encouraged me to just keep moving and to come when I could.

I always felt welcome when I came back – it is very hard when you are away from the academy for any length of time to go back because all the people you trained with have advanced and it’s like starting over but Professor Abel and the other members have been great.

November and December were dark months for me because I thought I would never be able to do it anymore and I was going through a lot of pain and complications , in and out of hospital, etc. I have never been someone susceptible to depression or feeling sorry for myself but that’s what started to happen.

It was Shawn (Jodi’s partner) who finally said, “Just go back, you had MS all those years you were doing MMA and jiu jitsu before you just didn’t know. Just go back and be smart about it and it will be fine”. That meant a lot because he is the one who sees all the effects and is by my side for all the hospital stays, pain and private struggles. I am lucky to have him, my kids and my family.

Training Risks

Any blow to the head as well is considered a mild traumatic brain injury which causes inflammation – this would lead to immune system attacking the central nervous system (in people with MS). Also, when you have MS, any type of staph or infection, illness, etc can be very dangerous as the immune system would go into overdrive which would again, attack the myelin sheath over the central nervous system. Although this might not be a training mishap, it is something you have to be very conscious of when rolling with anyone who could be sick and making sure your gi, skin, academy, is sanitized.

The Future

My goal is to do as much as I can while I can. I would like to keep training and competing and eventually do an international tournament. The Abhaya Open is my first goal, not just to compete, but to challenge myself to get to that level of training and fitness. Right now I feel healthy and strong.


“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

MS is different for everyone who has it , but I would recommend to stay as active and fit as possible. It is a contradiction because the symptoms can make it hard or even impossible some days to do anything, but find something that interests you and do it. Control the things you can such as your diet, and surround yourself with positive people and things. Cut out any unnecessary drama in your life and be grateful. Don’t wait to do the things you want, you never know how much time you have.

UPDATE

On April 27, 2019, after our interview, Jodi competed for the first time since her diagnosis at the Abahya Open. She placed silver in her division but deserves gold for her perseverance and determination. Congratulations to Jodi for all of her hard work!

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