Diagnosis: A full life

Despite her MS, JoAnn Salin pushes forward
Diagnosis: A full life
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

When JoAnn Salin was writing a column in the 1990s for the Middleton Times-Tribune on dealing with disabilities, she parlayed it into a segment on WTDY radio, and then she shopped it around to other newspapers.

“I’m always thinking I’m going to be famous,” Salin says.

The syndication deal didn’t work out, but Salin, 76, retains the optimistic streak that defines her much more than the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis that came 45 years ago.

A recent broken leg couldn’t shake her positive outlook. Salin used the time in a wheelchair to complete a movie screenplay.

“Once I get my Oscar,” the Madison native says, “what am I going to do next?”

The answer might just be: whatever she puts her mind to. In the years since her 1958 graduation from Madison West High School, Salin has raised two children; earned a master’s degree; written the column and produced radio segments on disabilities; sold real estate; taught computer skills and authored a short book on the subject; launched and sold ads around a website encouraging people to send in funny photos; served for a decade as president of her condominium association; and helped organize West High reunions.

When the reunion committee recently decided that 55 years was enough–even as the class’s 60th anniversary looms in 2018–Salin said she’d organize No. 60 herself.

All this from a woman who, when she was formally diagnosed with MS in 1972, was told by her Madison physician, “We hate to give you this diagnosis, because you’ll never get a mortgage.”

The doctor meant that a bank might be leery of giving a long-term loan to someone with MS, since the disease could exacerbate or worsen over time.

MS remains a confounding disease and was even less understood at the time of Salin’s diagnosis. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society website notes: “MS is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body … The cause of MS is still unknown.” Most people are diagnosed between ages 20 and 50, and women are two to three times more susceptible.

Salin’s case was mild, a malfunction of movement in her left leg. It dragged. She noticed it when walking alongside as her daughter learned to ride a two-wheel bike. Salin couldn’t keep up. She was 29.

Leaving her doctor’s office after the formal diagnosis two years later, Salin got in her car and wept.

“I was devastated,” she says. “The only thing that got me through was I had these two little kids to raise.”
That, and a stubborn optimistic streak. “Things work out for the best” was a saying ingrained in her by her father while she was growing up on Drake Street, a block from Vilas Park.

After West High, Salin spent two years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then returned home and studied elementary education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she met her husband.

Salin taught fourth grade for several years at Glendale Elementary School on Madison’s east side. A job for her husband took them to Sheboygan in the mid-1960s. They had two children. In 1969, around the time her left leg began to fail, Salin and her husband separated. They eventually divorced and she moved back to Middleton with her children in 1972, when she received the MS diagnosis.

It proved not as life-altering as it might have–the disease, for the most part, did not exacerbate over time.

“Nobody knew,” Salin says. “I had a mild case. I was always trying to hide it. I told people I had arthritis.”

That didn’t stop a police officer in Middleton in the 1980s from calling out to her on the sidewalk, “Did you have a little too much at lunch?”

Salin was limping. “No,” she replied. “I have MS. The next time I get stopped for speeding, you owe me one.”

By that time, Salin had sold real estate for McKy-Ellis, returned to UW-Madison for a master’s degree in rehabilitation psychology and discovered computers.

“I was just fascinated,” she says. Salin picked it up well enough that she worked at the UW-Madison computing center from 1986 to 2000 and published a small book called “Getting Started With Lotus 1-2-3.” After retiring from the university in 2000, she spent a decade helping seniors learn computers at the Middleton Senior Center.

Even during the years of 1988 to 1994, when Salin was writing her “Dealing with Disabilities” column for the Middleton paper, she didn’t highlight her own fight with MS. She answered questions in the manner of advice columnist Ann Landers, she says.

In recent years, Salin’s leg has weakened. She fell and broke it in a fall in 2013 and moved from her condo to Oakwood Village, a “care retirement” community. She broke it in another fall in January.

She remains undaunted. Salin was upright (with a walker) by spring. She was polishing her movie script that involves an absent father who reappears with a shady plan to borrow money from his adult son. Whether or not it gets her to the Academy Awards, it’s been an adventure.

Salin smiles. “I haven’t been bored a day in my life.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.