Under Pressure Greece: Social Stigma

"The time I spent with Panagiota and Manolis made me see that: even if one was to understand medicine and know about MS, Greeks in general prefer to stay away from people with MS.

Showing me photographs when he was younger, Manolis tells me that at the time when he was diagnosed, his girlfriend decided to leave him. Manolis knows this is because he was diagnosed with MS.  Panagiota has a similar story, with the addition that not only her then husband left her, but also most of her friends. I find it shocking to learn that Manolis' ex-girlfriend was a nurse-in-training and Panagiota's ex-husband was a medicine professional. Panagiota's husband also had the 'courtesy' to abandon her and take all their life's savings with him, leaving her with nothing. She had to go back and live with her 80 year old mother.

One would imagine that knowledge of MS should rather substantiate an objective outlook of life with MS and how important relationships are to a person with MS; or anyone with any long term condition for that matter. However, it appears that Greek society's pre-conceived notions of "something" happening to you, or to a member of your family, is the dictating factor in assessing any human relationship altogether.

With this in mind I found it amazing that Vasiliki has, pretty much, soldiered on through her career as a special needs PE teacher and lecturer. Lefteris, her partner, is amazingly supportive and loving. Vasiliki's experience of MS is a clear example of the opportunities that should be available to any person with MS in Greece: work, friends, life. As it stands, however, even if the government could solve the economic woes that affect the health services in Greece, the largest challenge I see facing people with MS in Greece today is the understanding and acceptance of their own society."

Maximiliano Braun

Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • In March 2011, lack of balance forced Panagiota Tsinoni to stop practicing as a breast cancer surgeon. Shortly before, her ex-husband emptied their flat and their bank account. Still uncertain about whether she will receive any disability or unemployment pension, Panagiota now shares a flat with her 85-year-old mother, Elpiniki. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • “Alone, alone, alone,” says Panagiota Tsinonis, describing her life since being forced to stop working because of MS. Previously an oncology surgeon with an active social life, she finds that friends drifted away and that the loss of balance limits her own movement through the few blocks around her apartment. Like many PwMS, Panagiota Tsinoni has found new friends within the local MS community. This network provides support in hard times and also celebrates successes: tonight
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Manolis Tsatsiadis dances with Olga Emmanoulidou while Tatiana Lazou (back left) partners with Matina Georgaki during a theatre class designed to integrate both able-bodied and disabled people. This Sunday night outing, one of many theatre activities organised by Zina Kostelidou, is the highlight of Manolis’ week. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Aristidis Koutsoupias (left) visits Panagiota Tsinoni twice per week for personalised physiotherapy sessions. Now that Panagiota has lost feeling in her feet, they often focus on finding balance in the core of her body. For many PwMS, the decision to avoid going out to walk is less linked to their physical limitations than it is to the fear of falling or having a relapse in public. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Manolis Tsatsiadis has physiotherapy at home twice per week. He believes its benefits equal that of any MS drug and thinks the treatment should be included in the national budget for disability benefits. Manolis is eligible for free physio, but the clinic is so far from home he cannot make the trip. Instead, he pays out of his own pocket. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Before the economic crisis hit, Manolis Tsatsiadis used swimming as a form of physiotherapy; after an hour in the water, he could walk comfortably for about 30 minutes. When the pool took measures to save money on heating, he had to stop: colder water worsens his tremors. Manolis’ meagre disability pension barely makes ends meet: his family provides financial help for physiotherapy and household essentials. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Living alone and being independent are hugely important to Manolis Tsatsiadis, but they carry a cost: everything takes much more time and effort. Boiling pasta, for example, may take as much as 40 minutes. “When I want to go out, I often know as soon as I see a bus coming that I will have to wait for the next one, because I can’t get to the bus stop fast enough.” Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Manolis Tsatsiadis recently moved into his own apartment, a display of independence considering the importance of family in Greek culture. His parents would prefer that he live at home where they could “take care” of him. He feels he needs the freedom to take care of himself. Yet the rent (400 euros) is more than he can afford on his disability pension (600 euros), so his family helps pay for food and other necessities. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Manolis Tsatsiadis’ medicine bag reflects the many symptoms that MS added to his daily existence. Aside from drugs to slow the progression of MS itself, he takes others to help control tremor, reduce pain, assist with bladder control, etc. At present, all MS drugs are fully covered by the national health plan, but the MS Society anticipates patients will have to start paying at least a portion due to the economic crisis. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • MS quickly took its toll on the body of Vasiliki Garopoulou. In just 3 months, she went from competing in international synchronised swimming events to walking with a cane. Ten years on, she cannot walk at all; but MS has no claim on her mind or spirit. She applies the champion mentality that carried her through five degrees to her role as scientific collaborator in Special Education at Aristotle University and in classrooms with 'special needs' children and adults. Credit: M
 Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • “One thing changed quickly when I was diagnosed with MS,” says Vasiliki Garopoulou. “The family of my boyfriend at the time couldn’t cope; his mother basically suggested to me ‘You have one option if you want to date my son: you must be perfect.’ Now, I make a script for myself, and find that I’d rather be thin and have MS and still like to look at myself in the mirror, than to be fat and feel ugly. Especially because I know that having MS is something I can’t change.” Credi
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Vasiliki Garopoulou using the disabled people's taxi service available in Thessaloniki. This van offers access for those with limited mobility as well as those who use scooters like Vasiliki, for free. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • (Left) Lefteris Dimitros and (Right) Vasiliki Garopoulou enjoying a coffee at the Aristotle Universtiy A.U.Th campus. Vasiliki comes here almost every Sunday. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • “My life is close to what I would have wanted if I didn’t have MS,” says Vasiliki Garopoulou. “Growing up with a disabled twin and with parents who pushed me to set goals has helped me psychologically. My father always took the approach that even when you are down, you are still alive: all you need to think about is how to solve the next problem. That’s what I try to do, every day.” Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Photos from just a few years ago show that Manolis Tsatsiadis was physically fit and socially active. Living with MS is having a substantial impact on both aspects of his life. He still swims when he can, but has given up other sports. Many of his old friends have faded away, although he’s made new friends within the MS community. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • In May 2011, loss of balance forced Pangiotta Tsinoni (44) to give up her career as an oncologic surgeon specialising in breast cancer. Now, even though she does physiotherapy to improve balance and wears a prosthetic brace on her leg, the fear of falling in the street keeps her close to home. She takes her dog, Nino, for daily walks but never strays far from home. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Finding an effective MS therapy has been a particular challenge for Vasiliki Garopoulou; every medication he tried has caused intolerable side effects. On average, she has a relapse once per month, many of which land her in hospital for cortisone treatment. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
 Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Living with MS means learning to budget one’s time in different ways. Vasiliki Garopoulou needs 1,5 hours to get ready every morning, which means getting up and going to bed much earlier than most people. To help keep her energy levels in balance, she splits her time between living alone and spending time at her boyfriend’s house. Credit: Maximiliano Braun
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • Vasiliki Garopoulou getting ready to go to work. Each morning, Monday to Friday, Vasiliki goes to work to a school where children with different types of disabilities go. Her classes include sports or games and computer typing. She refers to her lifestyle as a person who determines her life instead of leaving MS do it for her.
Thessaloniki, Greece, 10/2011 • (Left) Zina Kostelidou helping Manolis Tsatsiadis reach a coffee shop at Aristotelus Square in Thessaloniki. Manolis has a hard time walking by himself, although he uses crutches, and so his friends are more than happy to give him a hand. Manolis, however, wishes to do as much as he can by himself to remain as independent as possible. Zina met Manolis at a theatre company project that she runs which endeavours to bring together able bodied actors and actresses with people wit
Maximiliano Braun

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