Debora Juarez has never been one to back down from a fight. If you watch her in Seattle City Council chambers, you’ve likely heard the councilmember publicly disagree with a colleague or even cut off a disruptive attendee.
It is likely a product of a personal battle that few have known.
“Yeah, 1999,” she said, voice trailing while sitting in a chair in Seattle’s Westin Hotel. “I collapsed, and I was rushed to the hospital. They first thought it was brain cancer."
It took a while to start to put two and two together.
“I had all these episodes -- fainting, falling, this gait, losing my speech -- and I just thought I was a young mom, two kids under five,” she said. “I just thought it was exhaustion.”
Her doctor would tell her it was Multiple Sclerosis.
“My first thought was I didn’t really know what the disease was, and the second thought was my kids.”
The disease, which attacks the immune system, has only been part of the story.
“I’ve gone blind; there are times in my life when I did use a cane. There was a time I had to go on disability and leave my law firm,” she said, also noting she’s a three-time cancer survivor.
Despite it all, she earned a law degree, worked for two governors, as an attorney and a judge, and was elected to the Seattle City Council in 2015.
She thanks research and advances in technology for helping her do it.
Juarez told her story publicly for the first time at a fundraiser for the National MS Society on Wednesday. Her daughter was by her side.
Juarez acknowledges her disease and background has helped form her personality. She’s known at Seattle City Hall for a biting sense of humor and directness.
“As far as shaping my personality -- absolutely. Adversity isn’t new to me," she said. “This kind of power I have is baked in my DNA -- raised Blackfeet, raised Native American, raised Latina.”
It’s one reason she’s also not afraid to talk about “issues that are maybe uncomfortable, about race, racism, sexism, gender pay equity.”
She credits her council staff with helping her manage her time.
The first-term councilmember said she feels fortunate to have been able to manage the disease and also show that it should not limit one’s ability.
“It's a disease that will live with me forever. Kind of like a bad date, but no one can tell you I have to go. I just can't leave it,” she said. “I just want to show people that if you have MS or you have cancer, that you shouldn’t count yourself out. You still have something to offer to society.”
“Just because you have MS, doesn’t mean your mind doesn’t work. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be brilliant, that you can’t be energetic. You can more than contribute, and you can be a leader,” said Juarez, who received a standing ovation during her speech Wednesday.
Washington has a higher than normal concentration of people with Multiple Sclerosis.
You can find out more information, and resources at the National MS Society website.