Adam Wozny was a senior at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Ill., when he finally took matters into his own hands.
Adam’s mother, Agata, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than 10 years before Adam’s senior year, and now that he fully understood the significance of his mother’s condition, the soon-to-be Northwestern freshman saw an opportunity to take action.
Agata’s symptoms started when Adam was a first-grader living in Harwood Heights, Ill. One evening in March 2001, Agata went to the hospital after suffering a severe vertigo attack, the most serious outbreak after she had been showing symptoms of multiple sclerosis for months.
“Initially, I was really confused,” Adam says. “I hadn’t heard anything that had occurred as the paramedics had entered the house, so I just had no idea.”
Adam and his father drove to the nearby hospital where his mother was undergoing tests, but the two of them had to wait in the lobby for almost three hours before they were allowed to see Agata.
When Adam finally went in to see his mother in the early hours of the morning, she was somehow in good spirits.
“She’s always the type of person to smile, no matter what she’s going through,” Adam says.
Following her outbreak, Agata sought the advice of several neurologists in Chicago. After coming away with plenty of questions and not enough answers, the bad news finally came in April when an MRI of Agata’s brain revealed signs of MS.
A chronic disease of the central nervous system, MS disrupts the flow of information between the brain and the body. The disease ultimately causes the immune system to attack myelin, the substance that insulates nerve fibers, forming scar tissue called sclerosis. This inhibits the passage of nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord, leading to a variety of symptoms, typically fatigue, numbness and vision problems.
Initially, Adam had trouble dealing with his mother's severe diagnosis.
“A coping mechanism that I had used to deal with [my mother] having MS had been to pretend that she didn’t have it,” Adam says. “I don’t know if I was ever fully capable of coming to the realization [of what she was going through].”
Even though Adam had trouble dealing with it, Agata says she always knew he wanted to help fight MS. Agata recalls one of Adam’s assignments in elementary school, in which Adam decided who he wanted to be in the future. Adam said he wanted to be the president so he could find a cure for MS.
But Adam still wanted to do more to show her, so he came up with an idea to truly make an impact during his senior year of high school.
“It ended up being ‘How can I raise a ton of money [to show her I cared]?’” Adam says. “I feel like a lot of people do 5Ks and 10Ks…You start to think, ‘If I can do something more extreme than that, how extreme can I go?’ It all started coming together.”
In January 2012, Adam founded Miles For MS, a non-profit organization with the mission to “assist those suffering from, and ultimately cure, multiple sclerosis,” according to the organization’s website.
Just a few months later, Adam completed a 500-mile bike ride across Illinois, despite never having biked farther than 10 miles at a time. Through pledges from friends and family, Adam raised over $4,500 to help fight MS.
“I remember finishing in Wisconsin, and when we got on the highway, at some point it clicked in me that I was finally done,” Adam says. “I looked at my mom and this wave of emotion that had been collecting over the last few days hit me. I just burst into tears. That was the moment when, for the first time, I realized that I had shown [my mom] that I cared that she was afflicted with MS.”
Agata says that seeing Adam endure the difficulty of a 500-mile bike ride gives her motivation to fight her disease.
“It shows me that if he can complete the 500 miles, I have to fight and I should never give up, I should never complain about pain, because Adam can do that for me,” Agata says. “I am very thankful for Adam, and I’m very proud of him.”
Adam was honored with the Volunteer of the Year Award from the Greater Illinois chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in October 2012 for his efforts, and that was just the start.
Now a Weinberg sophomore, Adam finished the cross-Illinois trip again this spring break, raising an additional $2,000 after he completed the bike ride in five days. Looking forward, Adam plans to expand Miles For MS by reaching out to the Northwestern community.
“I can bike all I want,” Adam says. “But it doesn’t really help to raise just $1,000 or $2,000 every year, every two years.”
With help from Nour Alharithi, one of his brothers in Phi Delta Theta, Adam was able to organize a group of mostly Northwestern students to participate in the Chicago Spring Half Marathon.
Before long, Adam was hearing from interested students who had heard about the run through Facebook and mutual friends.
All the hard work came to fruition on May 18, when Adam and around 30 of his fellow students completed the half marathon. But even with these early successes, Adam plans to expand his charity in the fall.
“What Adam is doing, he’s not just doing it for me,” Agata says. “He’s doing it for all people affected by MS. I’m the reason he’s doing it, but in his head, he’s thinking about the many, many people who have to live with that, who have to deal with pain.”