Helen Fowler: Museum helps me appreciate MS treatment today

Writer Helen Fowler.
Writer Helen Fowler.
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It’s the first day of the school holidays.

I am determined to mark it by doing something special with my kids despite – or because of – my Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

A brief tussle with Google Maps ensues, then we set out along the A1 towards Prestongrange Museum.

As we leave Edinburgh, fields of canola open up in front of us like patches of sunshine.

At the entrance to the museum stand rusty coal carts. My kids look aghast on learning that children their age were made to push carts like these along underground tracks.

My children continue to look subdued as we walk across grassland towards the old kiln at Prestongrange. The building was used to bake bricks, pipes, and tiles. And lavatory bowls too. This sets my younger daughter giggling wildly, lightening the mood.

But then we discover that homeless people would sleep in the kiln at night. Any warmth they found came at quite a price; the place was full of poisonous gases that meant people died from inhaling the fumes.

I’m humbled by the reminder of what fellow Scots living so close to Edinburgh were enduring.

There are pictures in the visitor centre of miners who worked at Prestongrange, their faces covered with grime. My children look at them with mild disbelief.

“What is that on their faces, Mummy?” asks my elder daughter.

“Coal dust.”

She looks thoughtful.

“And did the dust come off?”

“Only with enough soap, hot water and scrubbing.”

Her puzzlement turns to concern.

Further inside the museum are glass cases containing lanterns, helmets and pickaxes. In one cabinet is a medicine bottle from the 19th century. It inspires me to look up some medicines from the period when we get home: “Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup”, (a concoction containing morphine that was used to “settle” fractious children), “Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral” and “Stephan Sweet’s Infallible Liniment”.

The liniment was advertised as a cure-all, allegedly a “great external remedy” for illnesses ranging from rheumatism, gout and neuralgia to lumbago, piles and headaches. Just for good measure, it claimed to help “all rheumatic and nervous disorders.” The Advertising Standards Authority would not have approved, not that it even existed back then.

Drug makers could tell whatever lies they liked.

Next to the bottle lie a mincing machine and a dirty ear syringe. Previous centuries seem to have viewed medicine and butchery as allied trades; perhaps the proximity is intentional.

My elder daughter looks a bit frightened on seeing the syringe.

“And did they use that to help people’s ears?” she says, sounding as if she hopes I’ll say no.

When we get home there’s a message about my MS medicine. I phone straight back.

This medication is keeping me mobile. It’s also allowing me to retain enough brain power to work, drive and look after my children, (though the latter only with a lot of help from my husband).

The pills halve both the severity and frequency of any attacks.

Sometimes I despair that a cure for this disease seems so distant. But at least I have an effective treatment. That’s a lot more than the miners of Prestongrange had when they got sick.

Helen Fowler is a journalist in Edinburgh and an MS campaigner.