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MERRILLVILLE — Last year, Scott Garzella had stiffness and tingling in his body, and trouble seeing. He went to the emergency room, and had to be hospitalized and put on heavy steroids for four days. He found out he had multiple sclerosis.

After returning home, the Portage steelworker tried to find a local doctor with an expertise in the disease. The 43-year-old didn't want to have to travel to Chicago for his care.

He located a specialist in Northwest Indiana: Dr. William Conte, a neurologist who started full time at Methodist Hospitals Southlake Campus in Merrillville on Aug. 1. Conte earned a fellowship in multiple sclerosis from the University of Chicago.

The hospital's Neuroscience Institute has also been designated a comprehensive multiple sclerosis center by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, a rarity outside of academic medical centers. The center has nurses trained in the disease, clinical trials, physical therapy and an infusion center on site, and a support group for patients.

"They basically get the same care they would have in a university," Conte said. "Just like you see a heart doctor for your heart, you need to see a doctor who specializes in what you have."

Garzella comes to the center every six months for an infusion of a drug, Ocrevus, meant to reduce relapses and prevent future disabilities from the disease. Multiple sclerosis, which affects an estimated 1 million Americans, is a chronic condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves, damaging the brain, spine and eyes.

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"I think patients should get the best therapy available, the most advanced therapy, the earlier the better," Conte said.

He noted that the the goal of treatment is to slow down or stop the progression of the condition, which is not curable. "These drugs don't fix the problems," he said, noting that the side effects of the medications are easily manageable. "Once the symptoms are there, they're there."

Garzella takes 13 other pills daily to manage his symptoms, which include include muscle spasms, fatigue and joint pain. He recently started physical therapy to help with his walking.

The illness's cause is unknown, though Conte noted that potential factors include a virus, genetics and vitamin D deficiency. Research into the disease, however, is growing at a rapid pace. That includes some done by Conte; he recently concluded that difficulty swallowing is not a valid way to tell if someone has multiple sclerosis.

"There's going to be a lot of drugs coming in the coming years," he said. "It's not a scary disease anymore, it really isn't."

"When I first started, it was a horrible disease, because we didn't have any medications," said Billie Childress, a multiple sclerosis nurse for Methodist Hospitals who has been in the field more than a quarter-century. "It's very nice to see the advances happening."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.