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NKU psychology student Brandi Estrada took a break from classes last July to have a stem cell transplant done. 

BrandiEstrada

By Jayna Barker
NKU Marketing + Communications

“I was in the position where I was being told, ‘You could die, and you very well might’...”

Brandi Estrada had been experiencing symptoms for longer than she could remember. Sometimes she would stutter. Sometimes she couldn’t walk straight. But she wasn’t sick. She brushed it off until she started to lose sight in her right eye in 2007. Brandi was 21 years old, and her doctor diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis (MS).

MS is an unpredictable disease that can disable the central nervous system, disrupting the flow of information between the brain and body. In Brandi’s case, it caused lesions on her brain to manifest physically.

When Brandi was first diagnosed, her prognosis looked promising. She was told that many people live with MS. No one ever told her that she could die from the disease, so she tried to live a normal life while treating her symptoms.

Brandi became a student at Cincinnati State in 2005, where she took classes before taking a two-year break. Then she went to UC but had to choose between being a student or taking treatments. She finally found her home at NKU in 2013.

She did well for while, but everything changed two years ago when her medication stopped working. She tried everything from pharmaceutical to holistic approaches, but she was having trouble swallowing and couldn’t articulate as well as usual.

Her health was deteriorating.

“I don’t think I grasped the seriousness of the disease despite hearing [my doctor] say, ‘I think it’s time,’” Brandi says. “I was in that position where I was being told, ‘You could die, and you very well might.’ I wasn’t ready to take that step.”

MS causes the body to have an over-active immune system. When there’s nothing for the immune system to do, it attacks the brain and spinal cord. The scary part? There’s no way to predict when it’s going to happen.

The day Brandi was going to start Tysabri—a monthly treatment that has a 5 percent fatality rate—she started doing research on stem cell transplants. They’re risky, but she wasn’t ready to die. She made up her mind that she wasn’t going to take the treatment and would find a different doctor. They would move if they had to.

“It took a long time for me to come to the realization that you have to take control over your own life—whether you’re sick or not,” Brandi says.

That’s when she found Dr. Burt.

Burt is a neurologist at Northwestern University in Chicago. Brandi applied and qualified for his clinical trial and moved to the Windy City to have a stem cell transplant—a $200,000 surgery—last July.

This January, six months after her surgery, Dr. Burt confirmed what Brandi had been wanting to hear for almost a decade: She was in remission.

“I’ve read stories about people who have died waiting for this transplant, so I feel very lucky,” Brandi says. “It certainly makes me appreciate life a lot more.”

She’s noticed a lot of improvement in the seven months since the transplant. She has her next checkup in July.

Since the transplant, Brandi and her husband have moved back to Cincinnati and found a house in Westwood. The psychology student is currently taking online classes at NKU and hopes to graduate after the fall.

Despite her diagnosis, Brandi says the hardest thing she deals with in life has nothing to do with MS. It’s her emotional attachment to justice, specifically when it comes to topics related to her minor in black studies.

“Our words have power—within ourselves and people around us,” Brandi says, “I made a decision a long time ago that when people say things that are clearly ignorant or violent that I was going to make a stand.”

Brandi parallels race issues with the conversations women have in the pit bull rescue she founded—Once Upon a Pit—whether it be police brutality, media coverage, or lack of education.

A lot of Brandi’s influence comes from Dr. Michael Washington, professor of history and director of the Afro-American Studies program at NKU. 

“Brandi is an exceptional human being,” Washington says. “Her resilient spirit, tenacious hope, and authentic connection to humanity are worthy of emulation.”

Brandi thinks the one way to change the way people view and understand racial issues is to talk about them.  

“Communication is so crucial to changing the world,” Brandi says. “We have to change the way we’re thinking. People are changing the world every day. Are you going to do it in a positive way or negative way?”

Brandi was a part of positive change herself when she helped collect water for Flint, Michigan’s water crisis through her employer, Rock Bottom, where she’s been working for seven years this April.

When it comes to future plans, Brandi’s debating on attending law school. Her ultimate goal and dream is to be a civil rights attorney and work in law reform, but she would also love to travel.

“The highest education you can get is experience—cultural diversity and being a part of different communities and societies,” Brandi says. “You have to learn more that way than any other venue.”