Leigh Kaplan completed her doctorate in physical therapy this May. In June, she began working at Lenox Hill Hospital, where she helps patients improve their functional mobility. This job takes on a deeper meaning for her because she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) just as she was studying about neurologic diseases in her last year of PT school.
On March 1st, the 26-year-old will be participating in the National MS Society’s Climb to the Top, where she will walk up the 66 flights of stairs at 30 Rockefeller Center to the Top of the Rock Observation Deck to raise funds and awareness for the disease. With her team, named Kapniss, which is a combination of her last name and the Hunger Games heroine, she’s already raised $20,000. When asked about her future plans, she said, “To me, life is really about the difference you make in the lives of others, and if I can even impact a few lives for the better whether in the field of PT or within the MS community, then I will consider it a great success.”
You work at Lenox Hill. What does your job entail? I graduated PT school in May and started working at Lenox Hill in June. It’s an acute care inpatient setting with the goal of improving functional mobility enough to safely leave the hospital. In terms of physical therapy, it’s right at the start of the continuum of care, seeing patients at their weakest. Following my diagnosis, I feel inordinately lucky to be in this field because I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. I am able to bring a level of empathy and compassion to patient care that PT school could not teach.
When you were diagnosed, did you have symptoms?It was two weeks after my 25th birthday, so it was a nice little birthday present. I realized I couldn’t see out of one eye. It was completely blurred. And then my right thigh was numb, so it sort of tipped me off to something being off. It was my last semester of PT school, and actually, in class, because it was our neuro curriculum, we were learning about neurologic diseases. I remember it really vividly. So I was starting to think in my head, ‘These are kind of weird signs.’ But also, I’m pretty stubborn and I’ve never really had anything wrong with me, so I was just kind of like, ‘It will pass, no big deal.’ And probably like three weeks into not being able to see out of one eye, and people really bugging me, like my family, to do something about it, I saw a neurologist. He immediately put me in the hospital for five days, and then everything kind of escalated pretty fast after that.
How has your life changed since and how has it stayed the same?I think when I was first diagnosed, I had this, again, stubborn mentality that nothing was going to change, thinking, ‘I can dictate what happens here. I’m tougher than this.’ That element of strength is important, but, you know, your life changes. It’s a disease where stuff is always coming up, so it’s made me more flexible and on my toes to things. But I would say it’s changed in that it’s given me a lot of perspective. I realize so wholeheartedly the importance of the people and the quality of the people I have surrounding me. It’s also helped me in being able to ask for help, which is not something that I did in the past. I went into a profession like PT because I’m driven to help people. And you take care of patients all the time and you never think you’re going to be the patient. It changes things, but for the good and the bad, and I think that I’ve learned a lot and come pretty far. You learn to slow down, because you don’t want to exacerbate what’s going on, but still accomplish all the goals you set out to.
How are you involved with the National MS Society?Last year, in the fall, a month after I was diagnosed, I had three close friends who said to me, ‘Leigh, we really want to do something. We hate seeing you in this situation and not being able to help, so we signed up for this event, the Climb. You don’t have to do anything. We’re going to do it. We want to do it for you.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, no, if you guys are doing it, I’m absolutely doing it.’ So I signed up also and sent out emails and all these donations started coming in. It was a blessing in disguise, because you don’t have any control over this disease. It operates how it wants to operate, but doing the Climb was this amazing thing that made me feel like, ‘This is how I’m going to make a difference. This is how I can help people in this situation and help myself.’
So how are you prepping for the Climb? So I’m an active person, but a major thing with MS is endurance. And that’s been a real battle for me in a lot of aspects of life, but especially this, because 66 flights is a lot for anyone. So I’m practicing; I live in a 35-story building, so that’s halfway through. It’s also a fundraising event, and I’m super proud of the team I put together last year and this year. Last year, we raised $18,000 and, individually, I raised close to $12,000. And this year, we’re almost at $20,000, which is amazing.
Who does your team consist of?Another thing with, well I don’t want to call it ‘getting sick,’ because I don’t see myself as sick, but it really brings together so many people from my life. People I didn’t necessarily think would show up for me. I think that’s the best way of putting it. So it’s comprised of family, and I can’t say enough about my family, they’re amazing, good friends from high school, college and grad school, extended family, so many people from all different sectors of my life.
Your group has about 30 members. You don’t walk the stairs together, right?Your whole team climbs together, but it’s a stairwell so they can’t send all 30 up at the same time because that’s a bit of a safety hazard. You go in individually, but everyone finishes close to each other. I was having a really difficult time last year, and there were a couple of people right by my side the whole time.
Why did you choose Kapniss as your team name?I’m a huge Hunger Games fan. And the lead character, Katniss, is maybe someone I relate to. She’s headstrong, tough and conquers challenges. So my last name is Kaplan, and my mom put the two together and started calling me Kapniss. It was cute, and I went with it. It makes her happy.
What are your future plans?Physical therapy, even before being diagnosed, was a huge dream of mine. It’s exactly what I want to be doing and it’s very fulfilling work. So I hope to continue progressing in my career with the goal of helping as many patients regain physical function and improve quality of life as possible. I know that my life now is a bit more challenging than before, so I hope to continue meeting adversity with a strong positive attitude and a smile, and from that perspective, assist my patients in doing the same. In terms of future plans within the MS movement, I would like to continue raising awareness for this ever-worthy cause. I think major strides have already been made and I am truly hopeful that, in my lifetime, a cure will be found. I am grateful to play any part in evoking change in this area.
To learn more about Climb to the Top, visit eventnyn.nationalmssociety.org