Making it work in the face of illness

(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)

Nathan Macdonald was four or five years old when he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. At eight years old, he was told by a councillor to give up on school. Macdonald was diagnosed with dermatomyositis at age nine. Now, he’s a third-year St. Thomas University student.

“It attacks me from the inside. It just destroys everything,” said the 23-year-old from Miramichi.

Dermatomyositis affects the muscles and skin and is considered an autoimmune disease, according to Muscular Dystrophy Canada. The disease leads one to feel weak and tired. It causes skin rashes and if left untreated can begin to affect the heart, lungs and other vital organs.

“The disease feeds off the sun, so I’m allergic to the sun,” said Macdonald.

Macdonald says his disease affects his calcium. If he is out in the sun too long it creates rashes and red blotches.

After he was first diagnosed, he ended up having three microfractures in his back, leading the IWK Health Centre to give him calcium intravenous. The medicine caused weight gain and when Macdonald was almost ten years old. He weighed 250 pounds. He was also confined to a wheel chair at points. He says he looked like a red tomato walking around.

“I found the positives to having this disease is a better eating habits and learning to exercise,” said Macdonald.

The disease is in remission, and Macdonald doesn’t know when it will come back. He trains and exercises to avoid putting his body through massive strain. Macdonald may have never been diagnosed with dermatomyositis if it wasn’t for his ADHD.

Macdonald was four or five when he was first diagnosed with ADHD because of his energy levels. This became a problem in the classroom and he started going to a learning center. After two years, Macdonald was tested. Then he and his mother sat down with the man who ran the program.

“He said to my mother ‘Your son can’t learn, he’s only at a grade three learning capability.’ Mom and I left, and she promised she wouldn’t give up on me and I promised I wouldn’t give up on myself.”

Macdonald enrolled in a private school and benefited from one-on-one time. He finally learned to tell time and found a way to cope with his ADHD.

When he was nine he was tired all the time, and his mother found it strange given his usual energy levels. He was first diagnosed with lupus and that medication helped with his rash, but not his energy levels. Macdonald says his mother was stubborn enough to try different doctors, and finally one suggested they go to the IWK in Halifax. That’s where he was finally diagnosed with dermatomyositis.

“I went there and I was a walking textbook of what this disease was. Doctors came from out of the woodwork to come and look at me because I was exactly what this disease was,” said Macdonald.

Because of the dermatomyositis, he missed months of school. The disease forced him to grow up fast and he couldn’t play sports because of it. But it allowed him to find a better way to cope with ADHD.

“I’ve learned to use it to my abilities. I learned to make it work.”


Macdonald had an early love for trains. He remembers one trip with his dad, avoiding shopping with his mom, where they spent hours riding in a train car talking to the conductor. He moved on to tanks and would point out when they didn’t use a time appropriate tank. He still loves tanks and wants to teach modern history someday.

“I like to get to know everyone on a first name basis and keep them positive.”

Macdonald doesn’t drink coffee or tea because the caffeine may make him too energetic. He thinks some people may shy away from him because he’s too loud or hyper. But he’s always looking to make people smile. Macdonald loves to sing and has a loud infectious laugh. One might hear his laugh before they ever meet the man behind it.

“I want everyone to be included in this happiness I feel.”


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