Life is all about making choices, and when life has dealt you a tragic hand, decisions must be made to either live or merely exist. Petaluma resident Doug Richardson is very familiar with having to make those kinds of choices.

Raised in Southern California, Richardson graduated from UCLA in 1975 with a degree in political science before joining the Army and serving as a Russian linguist stationed in Germany. After his service time was up, he returned to the states and took a job in sales with IBM, where he met his wife, Debbie.

Things seemed to be going extremely well for Richardson, except for an unusual numbness he started experiencing in his lower legs.

"I was originally diagnosed with Bell's Palsy when all three of our kids were under the age of 2," said Richardson. "But then I woke up one morning and the right side of my face was numb. I thought I had a stroke."

The Richardsons were living in Connecticut at the time, and thanks to his father-in-law's connections, Richardson was immediately able to get an appointment to see a neurologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

"He looked at me and arranged for me to have an MRI done right away," said Richardson. "This was back in 1988 when there were only two MRI machines in all of Manhattan."

The results of the MRI showed that Richardson was suffering from multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease in which the body's immune system eats away at the protective sheath that covers nerves. The damage to the sheath around the nerves causes interference in the communication between the brain, spinal cord and other areas of the body. The damage is permanent, and there is no cure. People with severe cases may lose the ability to walk or speak clearly.

"The good news for me was that what was going on with me was finally explained," said Richardson. "The troubling part was that in 1988 there were no treatments for MS. The first treatment that became available wasn't until 1992 and that was Betaseron. It's a sub-dermal injection that you administer every other day. It doesn't cure the disease, but it slows the progression."

Richardson said that the MS experience is an individual thing in that it affects everyone differently.

"I know people that were diagnosed at the same time I was and did not progress as I did," he said. "And yet, it was a slow progression for me."

From the time of his diagnosis, Richardson continued to work, which at that time was for the Amdahl Corporation as a high level senior executive. He remained there until 2001, when he began to notice that MS was affecting his ability to do his job.

"I was working at a very technical, high order, cognitive role and it started to affect my ability to perform," said Richardson. "So, I went to the president of our company and told him about my disease and what was happening."

Even though Richardson was coming face to face with the end of a successful working career, instead of seeing it as the end of a useful life, he saw it as new beginning with many opportunities.

"Amdahl was tremendously supportive and willing to make accommodations, but knowing that this disease was going to progress, I didn't want to spend my last working days there. I was ready to do something else — community service," he said.

Richardson wasted no time becoming involved with the community. He began volunteering at Hillview, a convalescent hospital in Morgan Hill, where he visited with patients living there with MS.

"I visited on such a regular basis that I became somewhat of a mascot," he said. "It was very spiritually enriching."

He became involved with the Multiple Sclerosis Society about 15 years ago and now is a board trustee of the MS Northern California chapter, where he also serves as co-chairperson of the programs and services committee. He was involved with the Walk MS fundraiser in San Jose before he and his wife moved to Petaluma last July. Richardson is ambassador for this year's Walk MS Santa Rosa to be held on April 21.

"The walk raises funds for programs and services that benefit people and families living with MS," said Richardson. "A percentage of the revenue from the walk goes to research and the other part goes for local programs and services."

His community service doesn't stop there, though. He does a lot of peer counseling for people who are newly diagnosed with MS and wondering what the disease will mean for their future.

"The shock of an MS diagnosis is stunning," he said. "It's just a real OMG moment. But it's not the end. It's just that things are going to be different."

Richardson likens living with an MS diagnosis to introductions at a cocktail party. "You introduce yourself by telling others your name and your position within a company or career field," he said. "Your identity is directly connected with what you do. Suddenly, you wake up with MS and you are no longer able to have that former identity. How do you introduce yourself then? It forces you to do some deep soul searching and ask yourself who you really are. Where do I have value? Where can I impact people's lives?"

Those questions can be scary at first, but Richardson said we always have the power to make a choice about how we want to answer those questions.

"It's hard for me to get out of bed and it would be very easy for me to just lie there, but I don't and I won't," he said. "As difficult as that first step out of bed is, it's nothing compared to everything available to me during the day."

Having lived with MS for 25 years now, Richardson uses a wheelchair to get around, but he hasn't let that stop him from having a positive outlook and a can-do attitude.

"From the outside, people look at me and ask why I'm smiling. They say, 'you're in a wheelchair, you can't move, you have all kinds of difficulties during the day, what do you have to be happy about?' I say that I have everything to be happy about. My life gives me great joy, and as long as I can project that out and people can see that joy, I think I'm doing what I need to do in life."

The Walk MS Santa Rosa will be held on April 21 beginning at Maria Carrillo High School, 6975 Montecito Blvd. in Santa Rosa. Check-in is at 8 a.m., followed by the walk at 9 a.m. Participants can choose from a 5k walk and a 1-mile walk. This year Walk MS Santa Rosa is hosting a crazy hat contest, so participants are encouraged to wear one for a chance to win prizes.

For more information and to register, call (800) 344-4867 or visit www.walkmsnorcal.org

(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at yovanna.bieberich@arguscourier.com)