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‘Didn’t cross my mind’: The symptoms that led to a major diagnosis

·5-min read
Irene Georgakopoulos' sits in lush green garden and smiles at the camera.
Irene Georgakopoulos' diagnosis was a strong message from her body to slow down. (Image: Supplied).

Find out how Irene's diagnosis triggered an overhaul in how she approaches her business, and the common business mindset she disagrees with entirely.

Irene Georgakopoulos had been able to brush off the lethargy, the light-headed moments and the brain fog, but when her vision became blurred, she knew something was wrong.

As founder of national physiotherapy organisation Physio Inq, then 37-year-old Georgakopoulos had been shuttling between Sydney and Melbourne for months to manage her 200 staff and 15 clinics, when she lost function of her left eye.

It’s easy for women to brush off symptoms that something’s wrong, Georgakopoulos believes. Before her vision went in 2019, she had found herself making excuse after excuse for her symptoms.

Either she hadn’t been drinking enough water, she was run down, she hadn’t slept enough. There was always a reason.

But within weeks of her vision blurring it became clear that this was more than being rundown - she had multiple sclerosis.

Diagnosis shock: ‘I thought it was blocked sinuses’

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the protective covering of nerves, and can lead to nerve damage affecting the way nerves communicate information from the body to the brain and vice versa.

While it can be treated, it can’t be cured and affects more than 25,000 Australians every year.

After years working as a physiotherapist with clients living with multiple sclerosis, the diagnosis “floored her”.

“I’d thought I’d had something like blocked sinuses, it didn’t ever cross my mind that it could be something serious, because I’ve always been so positive and thought, ‘I don’t get sick - I’m not that person,’” she told Yahoo Finance.

“Having something serious was never an option - [I thought] it was always something manageable.”

The doctors told her that she had been experiencing a major flare up. It didn’t take long for Georgakopoulos to realise that there had been several other flare ups in the last few years.

The first thing was asking, ‘Okay, what is the disease itself telling me?'

“This was the first serious flare up, in that it was a gradual build up of all of these minor symptoms before it hits you with this intense lethargy, to the point where I really couldn’t concentrate,” she said.

“I felt like I was a bit on drugs. I remember going back to the office and people literally thought I was on LSD or something - I was really spaced out.”

Treatment began almost immediately, and soon her vision returned. But it took around eight months for her to return to her physical fitness. For months, the gym was impossible - going for a walk was a work out.

What is this disease telling me? Slow down

Her recovery sparked a period of introspection. She knew there was a chance she would need to use a wheelchair, and she wanted to understand more about how she had so easily written off the warning signs.

“The first thing was asking, ‘Okay, what is the disease itself telling me?’”

An autoimmune disease, Georgakopoulos found there was a certain irony in her body attacking itself.

“It was an immediate reflection on my life where I was not looking after myself to the point where I was self-sabotaging,” she said.

It was all about taking time… and training myself to do less, and [to understand] that less is okay.

That was the story of her life - she was always on the run, doing everything at a million miles an hour.

“The main takeaway was: I need to slow this disease down. I need to slow down this hyperactive immune system. I need to slow down.

“It was all about taking time… and training myself to do less, and [to understand] that less is okay.”

This was hard for Georgakopoulos - she ran a big business and it was a major part of her life, her creative outlet and even her personality.

“But my body was telling me that it wasn’t serving me at that level. So I had to find the sweet spot between doing what I love and enjoy but fundamentally listening to [the message] that it was okay to do less.”

Today, Georgakopoulos has one goal: at her six-month check ups, she aims to have no new lesions.

She manages her condition largely through cutting gluten, sugar and dairy from her diet, and her lifestyle is now largely unchanged from her pre-diagnosis lifestyle.

She’s also learnt to listen to her body.

She knows she’ll have bad days, and when they strike, she doesn’t try to power through. Instead, she’ll give herself easier tasks or take the day off altogether.

A call for understanding

A physiotherapist, Georgakopoulos has always been keenly aware of the challenges in different people’s lives, but her multiple sclerosis diagnosis drove that home in a new way.

She was living with a silent disease, and she knew that even though she didn’t use a wheelchair, she still faced her own struggles with the neurological condition.

Shortly after her diagnosis, Physio Inq’s marketing manager approached her to do a story on her.

She was surprised - she hadn’t considered herself to be living through a major life event and hadn’t told many people.

It struck her as a powerful reminder that we often don’t know what’s happening in our friends’ and colleagues’ lives.

“It was a real lightbulb moment for me,” she said.

“Everyone’s got something. For me, it’s multiple sclerosis. For the next person, it’s marital problems, for the other person it’s a kid who is struggling at school, or a parent who has passed away.

“Being more mindful of that makes us be more compassionate on a daily basis with all of our human interactions.”

Find out how Irene's diagnosis triggered an overhaul in how she approaches her business, and the common business mindset she disagrees with entirely.

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