SOMETHING WAS wrong. At the Broadway play "Legally Blonde" that Saturday with her mother and her sister, Lauren Schulman found that her vision had become so blurred that she could barely see the actors on the stage. Within a few days she was having trouble walking, too, and by Wednesday found it hard to stand on one leg at her 6 a.m. kick-boxing class. At the hospital that evening, her doctors performed an MRI and later diagnosed with her multiple sclerosis.
That was how suddenly her world had changed.
Only a week before, the former Villanova swimmer had been in Tokyo on business for the New York financial consulting firm AlixPartners, where she worked in the corporate investigation unit. Until the symptoms began to reveal themselves, there had been no prior indication of the illness that would sweep over her - only a lingering exhaustion that she took to be jet lag.
"The doctors told me they suspected it was either MS, some parasite I had picked up in Asia, or even cancer," Schulman says of her August 2007 diagnosis. "But I just knew I had MS, as if God had told me: 'Lauren, you have MS. This is not going to be easy. But we will get you through it.' "
What Schulman could not know is how the news of her illness would be received by her old teammates, three of whom will swim the English Channel at some point between June 29 and July 6 in her honor on behalf of the National MS Society. In an extraordinary gesture to their enduring friendship with Schulman, Tori DeLollo, Kiersten Rosenberg and Trista Felty will try to conquer the choppy, 21-mile crossing in a relay that is expected to last approximately 17 hours. Saying that she was "totally speechless" when told what her friends had planned, Schulman adds: "I am just so humbled that they would do something like this."
Swimming the Channel for Schulman is an idea that originated with DeLollo, who happened to attend a talk by paraplegic Jim McGowan at Temple. DeLollo says she sat there amazed as McGowan described swimming the English Channel without the use of his legs.
"So I was thinking of doing something like this for charity even before I had heard what happened to Lauren," says DeLollo, who works at Temple as a project associate in the Center for Obesity Research and Education. DeLollo broached the possibility with Rosenberg and Felty, both of whom initially said she was crazy.
"I was very skeptical," says Rosenberg, who is a registered nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. "I actually had a friend from Pittsburgh who tried it last summer. He had to come out of the water after 8 hours because of hypothermia. So knowing that, I was kind of, well ... "
But a relay seemed more doable, so the idea began to hold more appeal. Under the guidelines of the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation, one of a handful of associations that oversee attempts at the Channel, DeLollo and her cohorts will each be in the water for intervals of 1 hour. Given the water temperature is expected to be 60 degrees or so, the fact that they will be able to get out of the water and onto an accompanying boat for stretches of 2 hours will cut down on the possibility of hypothermia. But even so, the sea is a far more challenging environment than a pool, which is why the federation asks that applicants do a qualifying swim in similar aquatic conditions. The Villanova trio completed that requirement a few weeks ago with a 2-hour swim in Atlantic City.
So ... can they do it?
Eight hundred or so have tried since 1875. The success rate is 40 percent for solo attempts, but figures to be somewhat higher for relay teams. According to DeLollo, there have been six casualties, including one of whom it was recorded "just disappeared from view." DeLollo and her teammates concede they each have certain trepidations.
DeLollo says her fear is "of the dark water." In order to reach the French shoreline while it is still light, which is encouraged by the federation in order to better enjoy the experience, departure from Dover, England, is scheduled for 2 to 3 a.m. DeLollo says that the swimmers will be outfitted with day-glow bands on their ankles so they can be spotted in the dark. Says DeLollo: "The qualifying helped me deal with cold water, but I am still afraid of dark water."
Seasickness is more of a concern for Rosenberg, both in the water and on the boat. "I got nauseous during the qualifying swim," says Rosenberg, who graduated with Schulman and Felty in 2006, a year after DeLollo. Swallowing salt water also could be a potential problem.
That brings us to Felty, a third-year dental student at Temple.
She smiles and says, "I am afraid of sharks."
While DeLollo assures her it is too cold in the Channel for sharks, she says that jellyfish figure to be an issue. In order to fend against them - and the cold - she and her teammates will coat themselves with "duck grease." (In case you are wondering, regulations prohibit the use of wet suits.) Says Rosenberg: "My friend [who swam it last year] told me that the duck grease helped with the initial shock of the cold water."
However challenging the swim figures to be, it is not likely to surpass the difficulties that have faced Schulman. While she says she is feeling somewhat better these days because of a new medication, she was initially overwhelmed with fatigue, which cut down on her ability to travel as extensively as she once did for her job. "Some days I could not even work," says Schulman, who adds that her energy level has increased since she began taking her new medication.
"MS is a progressive disease, but there are drugs intended to slow it down," says Schulman, who still works for AlixPartners. "I have some weakness and stiffness in one of my legs, so I walk with a limp. If you were to see me on the street, you would think, 'Something is a little wrong with her.' But usually when I tell people I have MS, they say, 'Oh, I never would have guessed.' And that is comforting."
Every week or so, Schulman still gets to the pool and swims. The exercise is helpful. Were it not for the fact that her immune system is not what it could be because of her illness, she says she would love to give the English Channel a try herself. But she will have to settle for just being on the boat, where she says she will be on the cheering squad.
And that will keep her more than busy.
"If they finish, that would be amazing," she says. "But just trying it is something extraordinary."
All proceeds, regardless of which donation method is used, will go directly to the National MS Society.
Multiple Sclerosis Society
ATTN: Sarah Buck
733 Third Ave., 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10017
"English Channel Swim" marked in the memo