Imagine for a minute that you’re 19. You’re in your second year at college, three states away from home. It’s a week before midterms. Your roommate wakes you up sometime around two in the morning and says, “You just had a seizure, are you okay?” You’re disoriented, you’re confused. You feel strange. It takes a moment to realize you’re covered in sweat, your body is exhausted, and you can’t move anything on your left side - not your arms, not your legs. Your left eye is still closed. When you try to tell your roommate that, no, you’re not okay, you can barely talk.
Thankfully, your roommate is a nursing student. She helps you up, makes sure you can breathe and that you’re as comfortable as possible, and then hurries down the hall to the RA’s room, leaving the door open in case something goes wrong and you need to shout - inarticulately because your brain isn’t functioning well enough to form words - that something is wrong. You feel trapped in your own body. You’re terrified and scared, and no matter how much you think move, you can’t do a damn thing with your left hand. Even though it’s freezing, you don’t get dressed. Your roommate and your RA help you into shoes and a coat, and they all but carry you to your car, which your roommate has to drive because you physically can’t. No one is there to see you, and under all your fear of why can’t I move, why is breathing hard and I’m dying, I must be dying is a horrible embarrassment that someone might see your ass being carted to the dorm lobby.
When your roommate finally gets you to the ER, the nurses take you away from her. You’re now terrified, convinced you’re dying, and you feel completely alone. You can’t ask any questions no matter how hard you try. You feel trapped. It hits the point of physical confinement when the doctors start running tests - MRIs, CTs, bloodwork. Someone mentions a lumbar puncture, and you know you need it even though the very thought makes you want to vomit. There’s a nurse there attempting to comfort you, reassuring you, but for fuck’s sake you can barely move, you feel like you have no control, you can hardly communicate, and all you want to say is that it’s not alright.
That was how I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
About five years later, I’m relatively at peace with my diagnosis. I’ve seen the worst of the disease in a 45 year old woman who couldn’t move or communicate in anyway except to blink once for yes and twice for no. The first year, I was angry. I was very angry. The second year, I was depressed. I had to learn how to walk with a cane and put up with people who couldn’t understand why a seemingly healthy college student even needed one. I had to learn what my body could and couldn’t do. I had to learn when I needed to swallow my pride and ask for help, and when I could keep pushing myself - and I had to learn to deal with the consequences when I pushed too hard. I had to learn to be neurotic about exposing myself to sick people because I couldn’t afford to get sick. My senior year, I picked up mono from my boyfriend and spent several days in the hospital because I was so sick and my body simply couldn’t handle the illness. The drugs I took to keep my autoimmune system from eating the myelin protecting my nerves kept my body from doing what it needed to fight my sickness.
But I’ve also seen the best of it in the way it has brought me into a community of people who live each day to the fullest, who love the life they’ve been given in spite of what they have to put up with. Until I was diagnosed with MS, I hadn’t met a lot of people who truly lived. The community I’ve found showed me how to be a person who happened to have MS, how to live with the disease without my life being consumed by it.
And then I played Mass Effect.
And I met Thane.
And I thought to myself “Well, shit, here’s a guy who knows he’s dying, too. This guy is just like me.” So while I made the choice to romance him because it was something my Shep would have gone for, I found myself loving him, too.
I saw - and continue to see - a lot of my life story in Thane. I’m not a badass lizard assassin who has already been married and had a kid (though that would be pretty awesome), but I’m someone who was handed a terminal diagnosis and then asked to live with it. I was told my body is killing itself, and so was Thane. I was told that while I could have a healthy and full life, eventually the MS would progress to a point where it couldn’t be controlled. I’d lose autonomous bodily function. My body would more or less destroy itself.
Thane exists in a parallel to me. Eventually, his Kepral’s Syndrome would progress to a point where it could no longer be treated. Eventually, his lungs would fill with fluid and he’d lose the ability to breathe. His body would more or less suffocate itself. And so Thane became Reg’s video game proxy.
Along came ME3, where Thane’s disease had progressed to the point where it no longer responded well to treatment. Maybe that progression surprises people, but it doesn’t surprise me. My MS is relapsing-remitting. The National MS Society explains RRMS in this way:
In RRMS, the most common disease course, a person experiences attacks (also called relapses or exacerbations) of worsening neurologic functioning followed by periods of remission in which partial or complete recovery occurs.
But any day of my life, that could suddenly become a progressive form of the disease. I could wake up tomorrow morning and experience progressively worsening neurological decay everyday for the rest of my life. Not just constant decay, but decay that is constantly and worse with time. No one knows when that will happen. It may not; I may be lucky enough to have RRMS for the rest of my life. But some part of me lives in fear of the day the RRMS becomes progressive, which is why I do my best to enjoy the autonomous function I now have.
So I wasn’t blindsided by Thane being in the hospital. I wasn’t surprised when he said he couldn’t help, even though I asked knowing I shouldn’t. If he had checked himself into the hospital for continuous care, he knew he was in a bad place. I’ve done the same thing. I got home from class one day toward the end of my junior year, tossed my keys at my roommate, and said she needed to take me to the hospital because, once again, my left arm was non-functional and I wanted that dealt with as soon as possible. Like Thane, I have learned when I need medical attention, stat.
When Thane chose to help save the Dalatrass, I was surprised. Knowing how sick he was, knowing how much he had weakened, he still wanted to help Shepard. He couldn’t manage running across a battlefield, but he could help locally. I winced when he said running was difficult because he was short of breath because I know what it’s like for walking to be difficult because I consciously have to watch where I place my feet. But some part of me was also ecstatic to see that he continued to fight for what he believed in - in spite of the disease hobbling him.
I saw a man continue to live his life, right up until he was stabbed in the stomach by a master assassin (and let me tell you, I would love to tap dance on Kai Leng’s corpse). I saw a man who wasn’t crippled by his disease - a disease that, in the end, won’t be much different than mine except in the mechanism for death. I saw a man die who was at peace with his life in spite of his disease. And I was, oddly enough, happy.
For once, I got to see someone who was just like me live and die just like I will. Okay, I won’t be stabbed in the stomach by a master assassin, but MS (Kepral’s) probably won’t be my cause of death. Some outside force will probably be what kills me - be it a complication from the drugs I have to take or an inability for my body to fight off the flu. One of those things will be Kai Leng’s sword in my stomach. More than that, this time, I didn’t have to watch the power of love cure an incurable disease. I love a happy ending as much as the next person, but every disease that is miraculously cured in a story is a brass knuckled punch in my gut accompanied by the understanding that something like that will not happen for me.
Thane’s death? Was a relief. It was an acknowledgement of me. And while I realize I am a small minority among gamers, while I realize that MS isn’t rampant among the population (the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke thinks only about 250,000-300,000 people in the US have MS), I would, quite frankly, be devastated to see Thane’s Kepral’s cured. Because it would be one more in a long line of slaps in the face.