Five years after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, Nathan Murry is living his dream.
The former Pinckneyville police officer graduated March 28 from the Illinois Conservation Police Academy and began field training Tuesday as a conservation police officer for DeKalb County in Lake Shabbona State Park.
"I have always wanted to be conservation police ... That's what I wanted to do when I was growing up," Murry said.
His dream appeared to come to a cruel end in 2009 when a Springfield neurologist told him he has MS, and that he's probably had it since high school.
Murry's first symptoms appeared when he woke up one morning during his junior year, and his right foot felt cold on the floor, but his left foot didn't.
"I went in the shower, and I couldn't feel the water on my left side," Murry said. "They thought it was a pinched nerve at that point. They couldn't figure anything out. Looking back on it, he (doctor) said, 'That was your first sign of MS.'"
Murry went on with his life -- getting married, starting a family and working as a police officer.
He didn't think about his symptoms again until nine years later in 2008, he fell over while bending down to put on his shoes. The same thing happened the next day. He also found himself running into door frames and struggling to write on a line.
Doctors initially thought it was a stroke, but mentioned the possibility of MS.
"I was OK with the stroke at that point," Murry said. "We don't need to talk about that (MS). Let's talk about the stroke. I can rebound from a stroke."
But six months later, his left side went numb again while working out at a Du Quoin gym. His friend forced him to go to the doctor, and a month later, he was in the neurologist's office in Springfield hearing the news he feared.
"I learned more the first five minutes I was there with him than I had for the last six months," Murry said.
He thought the diagnosis had ended not just his dream of becoming a conservation officer, but he feared his law enforcement career might be over, as well.
"When I first got diagnosed, I got depressed," Murry said. "The depression really had set in, and I was like 'This sucks, I'm not going to be able to do anything.'"
But his bosses visited him at the hospital and assured him they'd find a place for him on the force. They eventually made Murry the department's K-9 officer.
"It was a really good feeling to know it wasn't the end," Murry said. "I love doing it. I love being a police officer."
Multiple Sclerosis is an auto-immune disease that attacks the myelin sheath or protective covering around the nerves, causing scar tissue to build up and weaken the connections between the nerves.
The disease affects bodily movements, but is not fatal. People with MS normally die as a result of complications from the disease, such as pneumonia from being bed-ridden.
Murry is in the relapsing/remitting stage, the lowest of four stages of MS, and he takes Copaxone, which lengthens the time in between relapses.
"It will keep me healthier longer," Murry said. "Twenty or 30 years ago, they didn't have the medicine they have now and life expectancy for people with MS was a lot lower than it is now. Now it is normal life expectancy minus seven years."
Living with MS
Murry hasn't let the disease hold him back, but has used it as inspiration to get the most out of life.
The 31-year old remains in great shape, running four legs -- 14 miles -- of this year's River to River Relay.
Illinois Conservation Police Lieutenant Curt Lewis said Murry finished near the top of his class at the academy in each physical fitness category, and the De Soto native bench-pressed more than anyone in his class.
Lewis thinks Murry's battle to keep his dream alive against the ravaging forces of MS will make him a model employee for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"It's not a job for him," Lewis said. "It's a way of life."
At the academy, Lewis offered Murry some sage advice the new conservation officer will carry with him the rest of his life.
"Your MS doesn't define you," Lewis told him. "Don't let it define you, and you're going to be just fine."
The disease hasn't defined him, but it has given the father of three a renewed understanding of the fragility of life and the value of every moment.
"I spend as much time as I can with my family," Murry said. "My boys -- they've both been hunting with me. We go fishing all the time. I go to their ballgames. They come to my softball games. We just spend as much time as we can together as a family."
Murry founded the Southern Illinois Multiple Sclerosis Society and serves as its president, using his own life experience to help others with MS.
"In 2009, I felt God pulling on my heartstrings or tugging at me, 'You've been blessed with such good health, you need to help other people,'" Murry said.
The society constructs wheelchair ramps for people with advanced forms of MS, hosts a golf scramble to benefit the national MS society and provides the Mike Moore Memorial scholarship for families with MS. The scholarship is named after Murry's childhood neighbor, who also had MS.
"When you get to the end of the road ... I want to have had an impact and a good impact on somebody's life, even if it's just one person I've helped or two people. It makes it worth it and our time here is not wasted," Murry said.
If nothing else, Murry is an inspiration to many others with the disease. A woman who did the MS walk last year from her wheelchair said Murry's life has inspired her to try to walk it this year.
Murry admits his future is uncertain. The medicine could keep him in the remitting/relapsing stage for years to come, or he could get sick again tomorrow.
Either way, Murry plans on spending time with his family and making the lives of others with MS a little better.
"I have the disease, but I've been blessed. I'm in such good health," Murry said. "Why not give back to the people who aren't as fortunate as I am."