How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
When Sidney Sterling started experiencing a slight tingling and numbing sensation in her right arm, she figured she slept wrong and went about her activity at an elite summer cheer camp — one she’d dreamed about attending since she was a kid. At age 16, she felt like everything seemed to be falling into place.
As the cheerleading camp went on, Sterling says the tingling and numbness traveled up her arm and into her back, and she knew it was time to say something. “Once I got back to Miami, my parents immediately brought me to the emergency room,” Sterling tells Healthline.
After an MRI of her brain and spinal cord, a spinal tap, and three full days of observation in the hospital, the doctors determined she had contracted a bacterial infection.
After settling into her junior year of high school, Sterling noticed that day-to-day tasks like school work, homework, extracurricular activities, and cheerleading practice were daunting and physically exhausting.
After expressing how she felt to her parents, Sterling’s mom and dad took her to see a pediatric neurologist.
And that is the moment her life changed.
“The pediatric neurologist reviewed the results from my trip to the hospital four months prior,” says Sterling. “But instead of thinking I had a bacterial infection, this doctor gave me a different diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.”
What it’s like to get an MS diagnosis as a teen
Most teenagers aren’t thinking too seriously about the future of their health. This was certainly the case for Sterling.
“I don’t think I understood the severity or the impact this diagnosis would have on my life,” Sterling says. “I was both anxious and relieved: anxious for the future but relieved that my health would finally improve and I could resume regular activity,” she explains.
Thanks to her parents, who searched for and found the best neurologist in Miami, Sterling was able to see Kottil Rammohan, MD, a neurologist at the University of Miami.
And with the help of Rammohan, Sterling was able to find a medicine that worked for her. After a lot of trial and error, Sterling says she was finally on the path to feeling like herself again — for the first time in over six months.
“When you have a debilitating disease like MS, I don’t think you ever come to terms with the diagnosis — you just deal with it,” she says.
It wasn’t until Sterling’s mom told her — “You can hide your diagnosis from everyone and impact no one, or you can share your story and impact thousands” — that she decided to stop feeling sorry for herself and rechannel her energy.
“Once I realized how much I could change someone’s life through my story and struggles, I was finally able to accept my diagnosis,” she explains.
Sterling also saw a future as an MS advocate when people would find out she was diagnosed with the condition and say, “Wow, I would have never known” or “You don’t look like you have MS.”
This gave Sterling the perfect opportunity to educate people about MS.
How being a cheer captain keeps her going
“If you had told me five years ago that I would be a captain on the University of Miami cheerleading team for three years, I would have told you there’s just no way,” she says.
Especially since Sterling was told by a doctor in the hospital that cheerleading — let alone going to college — would be a stretch, and that she’d end up in a wheelchair.
Even though she’s achieved her dream of becoming a cheer captain, she does say that some days are a real struggle.
“Sometimes I wake up with body cramps, and my joints feel unbelievably sluggish, but I always tell myself, Sidney, you have two options: you can sit here all day and let MS win, or you can go out there and tackle everything you have to do and make an impact.”
For Sterling, the decision is easy: she always chooses the latter. But she does so with the proper care for her health. “I watch what I eat, how I fuel my body, and always make exercising a priority.”
I always tell myself, Sidney, you have two options: you can sit here all day and let MS win, or you can go out there and tackle everything you have to do and make an impact.
When it comes to practice and games, Sterling says her coaches always check in on how she’s feeling. “They know my health comes first.”
“My coaches, teammates, professors, sister, parents, family, and friends have been by my side every step of the way, and I truly have the most amazing support group,” she says.
That alone is what gets Sterling through the hard days.
How her journey is helping others
After Sterling was diagnosed with MS, she says Nicki Friedland (a friend of a friend who also has MS), reached out to her mom to offer Sterling help and support.
Friedland had started an annual charity event called Shop to Stop MS, which is held in November to raise money and awareness for the University of Miami MS Center for Excellence.
“I’ve been involved with Shop to Stop MS for four years now, and I truly believe that I wouldn’t be where I am today without it,” says Sterling.
In fact, this charity event is a major reason why she decided to stay in Miami for college. Sterling says this event, plus her relationship with Friedland, means the world to her.
What does the future hold?
“Once I realized the impact I could make, not only in my community but on a national scale, that’s when I finally felt comfortable telling my story to inspire others,” says Sterling.
Besides her passion for cheerleading, Sterling is excited about a career in public relations and writing, and using social platforms to make an impact.
“Life is too short to only look out for yourself,” says Sterling. That’s why she wants to combine her educational talents and journey with MS to make a difference in peoples’ lives.
“I’m not entirely sure what the future holds — no one is — but I do know that it involves prioritizing my health, being with my family, inspiring others, happiness, and lots of laughs.”
Sara Lindberg, BS, M.Ed, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a bachelor’s in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health.