Photographed on location at Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre
Photography by Adam Goudreau and Dwayne Martineau. Styling by Jyllian Park. Hair and makeup by Amber Prepchuk
As far as years go, Patrycia Rzechowka was having a stellar 2011. She was enjoying a job with PetSmart as an obedience dog trainer. She had just finished a four-year stint studying criminology at the University of Alberta and was ready to pursue her dream of becoming an officer with the Edmonton Police Service. But, just a day before New Year’s Eve, Rzechowka’s life took an unexpected turn when, at the age of 23, she lost the vision in her left eye.
The sudden loss of vision promised a less-than-happy New Year and nearly a month filled with visits to doctors and specialists. Rzechowka was diagnosed with optic neuritis – an affliction often signaling the early stages of multiple sclerosis – and was set on a heavy regimen of intravenous and oral steroids to bring her vision back to normal. By January 19, 2012, her vision had partially returned, but her weight had dropped to 100 pounds.
The steroids had left her mentally exhausted and an MRI revealed that MS was, as suspected, the culprit in the mystery of her vision loss. Due to the disease’s many potential neurological effects, such as decreased motor skills, exhaustion and issues with sensory perception, Rzechowka’s future became, all at once, uncertain.
Where some would find the news defeating, Rzechowka refused to let her disease limit her. She’s still actively pursuing her dream of working in law enforcement; she has continued to train dogs independently and she has become one of Edmonton’s most active (both literally and figuratively) figures in MS awareness and MS Society fundraising initiatives. In 2012, she raised nearly $13,000 for MS research in the MS Bike Tour and, in 2013, her charitable work garnered her Edmonton’s National Philanthropy Day Award. Along with the return of her sight, she’s also gained a clear vision of purpose: That she will do everything in her power to fight for herself and, more importantly, for others who share her condition.
There’s no mistaking Rzechowka’s fiery attitude – she wears it like a badge of honour. From the tattoo on her thigh that reads “You MS’ed with the wrong girl” to her wild accessorizing and quirky street style, it’s apparent that she’s a woman with a fire inside and flair on the outside. Whether she’s exercising for fun, bicycling for a cause, or sporting a quirky accessory at one event or another, when she puts her mind to something – be it fundraising, fun, or fashion – she isn’t MS-ing around.
You have quite the last name. Forgive me if I mispronounce it.
[Laughs] Don’t worry. It happens all the time. It’s pronounced “Ja-hoof-ka.” It’s Polish.
Do you speak Polish?
Yes, fluently. My parents were Polish immigrants. I didn’t learn English until I was in school, actually. Strangely enough, it was a French immersion school. I’m also a Polish preschool teacher, now.
You walk, run and cycle for MS fundraisers regularly. Have you always been this physically active?
Oh, yeah. I’ve always been involved in physical sports. I’m a runner and I’ve been in Muay Thai since I was 14. After my diagnoses, though, my doctor told me he didn’t think I should run anymore. So what do you do with that?
What did you do?
Once I had recovered a bit, I looked into low-impact exercise. I attended spin classes, I began to go to yoga, and one of my friends who worked at United Cycle had mentioned this MS Bike Tour. I figured – this was before I knew for sure that I had MS – that I would take part in it whether I was diagnosed with it or not. If it was only a scare, I would do it and help the people who have it. If I was diagnosed with MS, I could still help those who have it worse than I do.
Was your first MS Bike Tour a success or struggle for you?
Well, when it came to the fundraising process, I originally hadn’t told that many people I had been diagnosed. I felt if I told people, it would make it all the more real, y’know? Eventually I thought: “What is more important? My fear of other people looking at me differently or raising money for this cause?” So I wrote out my whole story and shared it through friends, family and social media. I started with a $1,000 goal. But I reached that goal within three days. Since I had already filled out the forms with a $1,000 goal, I just added a zero and hoped for the best. The support was overwhelming. I ended up raising nearly $13,000. The best part was that, because I raised over $10,000, I was sent off to Miami to participate in that bike tour. In that one, I was the first person with MS who ever completed both 100-mile legs. It was so much fun.
Is that how you ended up getting so involved with the MS Society?
Yes. After the bike tour, they asked if I wanted to be involved with other fundraisers and things like that. I said “sure,” not really knowing what I was getting myself into at that point. But they asked me to be the inspirational champion for A&W’s Cruisin’ for a Cause in August of 2012. I was asked to come to events and to speak and I visited many A&W locations in support of the cause. I was so inspired by everyone involved, so I did anything I could do to help.
It sounds like you jumped right in.
I did. My entire perspective has changed. I know there are people who have it worse than I do, so giving in because I might feel tired or something isn’t even an option anymore. I’ve become an MS ambassador. I help with any sort of volunteering they need. I’ve become more involved with the research side of it, by giving an idea of what our challenges are to MS researchers. I’ve joined the National Youth Advisory Group for the MS Society, and the board of the Edmonton chapter of the MS Society.
Well, it sounds like you don’t need much motivation, but when it’s time to get pumped up, what’s on your workout/cycling playlist?
It’s funny because I’m always singing and dancing. I’m that person you see in their car rocking out as loud as they can – and I just don’t care. I love anything new and Top 40 because I love anything upbeat that I can move to. But if you put my iPod on shuffle you might think there’s something wrong with me – it’s filled with ’90s dance music; anything from Ace of Base to Aqua [laughs] . I used to do yoga with (local singer/songwriter) Chloe Albert, so I have a lot of stuff on my iPod. The Carolines; I met them all in yoga.
How would you describe your style?
It depends on the day. If I’m working out, I’m wearing my workout clothes: Brands like Lululemon and Spiritual Gangster. Mainly, I kind of just go with whatever I like – and I like to have fun. I mix it up with loud accessories. I wear suspenders, or bowties or brightly coloured shoes. I’ll wear practical clothing, with neutral colours, but then wear leggings that are brightly coloured or patterned or a really bright lipstick. When I’m working with kids, they say that I look like Tinker Bell, so I play that up with sparkly make-up.
Do you have a particularly fun piece you like to wear?
I recently bought this ostrich feather skirt from Club Monaco. It’s poofy and fun. But, again, I like to wear it with a neutral top and a jean jacket to make it pop.
Has your condition affected your lookin any way?
Just my hair. The steroids I took during my diagnoses ended up [damaging] the majority of my hair so, I ended up having to cut it short – really short. I said, ‘If it has to be short, can we make it a fun colour?’ My friend, who cuts my hair, asked if she could bleach it blond. I said “Sure, why not?” I’ve never had as many people comment on my hair as much as they have since I cut it off, so I guess, like everything else, I just had to embrace the change.