The Other Alexandria: An early victim of multiple sclerosis

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The Other Alexandria: An early victim of multiple sclerosis
Courtesy photo Corinne Idella Henry started experiencing pain that is now associated with multiple sclerosis when she was in her 20s.
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By Char McCargo Bah

In the 1940s, Corrine Idella Henry was full of life and dreams of one day marrying her military fiancé when she started experiencing problems with her balance. She would stand up only to fall down. Unknown to her at the time, she was experiencing symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. She would be one of the first African Americans in Alexandria to be diagnosed with M.S.

Henry lived in the western part of Alexandria known as Seminary. She was born on Nov. 15, 1927 to Wilmer and Willie Mae Henry and was a member of Oakland Baptist Church.

In the early 1940s, she attended Parker-Gray High School with many of her friends from her neighborhood. Her friends included Hilda Wanzer, Mamie Casey, Vivian Rust, Lillian Terrell and Frances Wanzer. Those young women formed a group called the Silver Slippers.

Henry was outgoing and her daughter Sylvia said, “[My] mother was a woman ahead of her time.” Henry was the third child in her family.

She had her first child, Sylvia, in 1949 when she was 22. After the birth of Sylvia, Henry experienced pains that were related to the first signs of M.S. In 1954, she had her second child, Toniette, and after that, her unknown illness became worse. Henry kept falling, and at a certain point she needed assistance in walking and she felt weakness in her limbs. Her parents asked their church to pray for their daughter. A relative advised the family to take Henry to a doctor to find the exact cause of her ailment.

Henry’s two daughters were 7 and 2 years old when she was diagnosed. Her mother, Willie Mae, quit her job at Virginia Theological Seminary to assist her. Henry’s children were her caregivers.

As her illness progressed, she found it painful to sit upright. She could not turn her body over, so her father would help her twice a day. The family was able to get help for Henry through the Givers Fund, which provided funding to the Alexandria Visiting Nursing Association. She was also able to remain in her parents’ home at 1021 Woods Place because the Visiting Nursing Association assisted in securing a hospital bed for her.

As time went on, Henry’s M.S. advanced. Throughout her illness, she was in and out of the hospital, with one of her stays lasting for one year. Her children would visit her throughout this time.

“I would go after school to visit my mother. She was in the Alexandria Hospital in the segregated ward. After my visits, I would leave the hospital and go out to wait for a bus to go home. As I walked away, I could see her waving from her bedroom window,” Sylvia recalled.

“I do not remember my mother ever walking. I always remember her in bed,” Toinette, who was 2 during this time, said. “I know that when my grandfather tried to put her in a wheelchair, she was very uncomfortable and in pain. That was the only time I heard her complaining.”

To celebrate one of Henry’s birthdays, the hospital’s newsletter said this about her, “One of Alexandria Hospital’s favorite patients celebrated her birthday on November 15 and the entire nursing staff of her unit joined in the celebration.”

“This is the nicest birthday I have ever had,” Henry said in response.

By 1964, Henry had lost her sight. In August 1966, she was readmitted to the hospital, and it was her last trip. She died on Aug. 29, 1966, at the age of 38.

“The doctors said they did not expect her to live that long. They said they believe she had the will to live because she wanted to be with her daughters,” Sylvia said.

Anyone who knew Henry fell in love with her and her incredible fortitude on behalf of her children. Her daughters remembered their mother on Mother’s Day.

The author is a freelance writer, independent historian, investigative researcher, professional genealogist and a Living Legend of Alexandria. You can visit her blog at www.theotheralexandria.com for more about “The Other Alexandria.”

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