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role model Ulster beauty says she won't let disease hold her back in modelling career

Helen had to give away her MS 'secret' after an accident at a beauty pageant

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Helen Maher was appointed Miss Grand Scotland 2020 and succeeded Miss Grand Scotland 2019 Freya Taylor for the crown.

Helen Maher was appointed Miss Grand Scotland 2020 and succeeded Miss Grand Scotland 2019 Freya Taylor for the crown.

Helen Maher was appointed Miss Grand Scotland 2020 and succeeded Miss Grand Scotland 2019 Freya Taylor for the crown.

Model Helen Maher showed a clean pair of heels to multiple sclerocis after having to ‘confess’ about her condition while taking part in a global pageant in Thailand.

Helen is the current Miss Grand Scotland though she grew up and lives in Coleraine.

That meant she had to travel to Bangkok in February for six weeks as she took part in the Miss Grand International.

But during rehearsals she twisted her foot and found herself revealing her ‘secret’ condition to the competition organisers.

“I have MS but I only got the diagnosis about a year ago so it’s not something I had really wanted to talk about,” says the 27-year-old.

“I thought if the people running the pageant had known about my illness they might have stopped me from competing. I thought they would send me home.

“During rehearsals in Thailand I twisted my foot while wearing a pair of high heels and I felt a lot of numbness in my leg which is one of the things the MS causes.

“I was quite upset and just told them about my MS, everything came out.”

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Helen representing Scotland in Thailand

Helen representing Scotland in Thailand

Helen representing Scotland in Thailand

Helen has battled symptoms of MS for almost 10 years and life has not been easy – not least because she and her family had no idea what was causing the regular trips to hospital.

In Thailand, instead of giving her a hard time the pageant organisers rallied round her and she found herself on the main 6pm news telling millions of people about her condition.

“Coming clean about my MS was a massive moment because I discovered that people are actually more interested and caring about it than I had thought,” says Helen.

“The people in Thailand reacted completely differently. They didn’t send me home, they didn’t panic. They just wanted to know what they could do to support me.

“And they were really keen to know more about it because it’s something that doesn’t affect people in Asia as much, so they hadn’t really heard about it.

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“I ended up on their version of the six o’clock news in both Thailand and the Philippines talking about it!”

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that can affect the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide range of potential symptoms including problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance.

It’s a lifelong condition that can sometimes cause serious disability, although it can occasionally be mild.

Helen has Relapsing-Remitting MS (RRMS) which means she could suffer an attack which can be quite debilitating but may not have another one for months.

Helen was a regular visitor to the nearby Causeway Hospital in Coleraine – where thankfully now she has a neurologist – and says she’s happy to talk about her condition if it can help health professionals connect all the symptoms sooner.

“An attack could strike at any time,” says Helen. “I often get numbness in my legs so I’m learning to know the signs but I had quite a rough time for quite a few years.

“I was going to the doctors and the hospital and they thought it was all in my head, that it was a mental health problem – I even started to think that myself.

“They would tell me it was just a wee infection and they’d give me antibiotics, but I’d be ill for months at a time and you start to really worry what is wrong with you.”

Helen ended up with life-threatening sepsis and required emergency operations.

“I had a number of operations after I contracted sepsis and I lost 80 per cent of the sight in my right eye to neuritis which I still haven’t got completely back.

“Looking back now I was clearly getting symptoms in my late teens but nobody had a clue at that stage.

“I could hardly swallow food at one stage and end up losing nearly two stone but even though I could feel my muscles physically didn’t have the strength to swallow I was told it was all in my head.

“I was 21 or 22 at the time and it was the most terrifying thing in the world. I had to have all my food liquified but nobody could tell me what was wrong.”

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Helen, pictured at home, says she hasn't let the disease hold her back

Helen, pictured at home, says she hasn't let the disease hold her back

Helen, pictured at home, says she hasn't let the disease hold her back

When doctors finally sent Helen for MRI brain scans they discovered lesions on her brain and two on her spine.

Helen finally had her diagnosis which came just a year ago but initially left her terrified.

“While part of me was happy to at least be told, finally, that I was genuine, it was terrifying to be told you have MS.

“The first images came into my head was of an older person in a wheelchair and a walking aid. But once I realised lots of young people have MS I was able to learn to deal with it.

“Now I have a neurologist and I’m being really well looked after. They will find the right medication for me and I will get on with my life.”

It’s probably no surprise Helen performed very well in Thailand and won the Miss Grand Spirit title for her battling personality.

“It’s like the Miss Congeniality title, for my personality and spirit and I was proud to win it. They go through all your charity work and they search through your social media accounts to see how you conduct yourself.

“I’m from Coleraine all my life but I have Scottish grandparents so when I was asked to represent Scotland, I was proud to do so.

“It was the most amazing experience of my life out in Thailand. Orginally it was supposed to be held in Venezuela but it had to be moved due to Covid.

“It’s a huge pageant which is really popular in Asia and they looked after us really well.”

Helen had to tap into all her strength to survive the boredom of being locked in her hotel room for two full weeks during quarantine.

“It wasn’t a big hotel room and I was not allowed to leave it. They brought us all our meals and gave us plenty of things to do to keep us entertained as much as they could.

“All I could do was try and keep fit with online exercises and Netflix!”

Helen, who had trained in performing arts, has now set her sights on becoming a veterinary nurse.

“Animals are my passion and I’ve done a lot of charity work for Dog’s Trust and other rescue groups,” she says.

“I’m now very passionate to talk about MS because it’s clear not enough is known about how it affects young people. I want young people as well as health professionals to be aware of the signs. Too many people don’t get diagnosed until they are quite old.

“Being diagnosed early could be really important because then they can get the right treatment.”

David Galloway, Director MS Society NI, said: “More than 5,000 people live with MS in Northern Ireland and we know many struggle to talk about it. It is great when people like Helen can.”

For MS Awareness Week the MS Society is saying #LetsTalkMS. They’ll be sharing new tools to help people feel confident about speaking up and stories of how others found their voice. Visit www.mssociety.org.uk/msweek.

steven.moore@sundayworld.com

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