Health & Medicine

MS diagnosis gives Miss Kentucky a platform and perspective to enjoy the ride

Miss Kentucky Ramsey Carpenter played the national anthem on her fiddle before Kentucky's home opener Aug. 30 at Commonwealth Stadium. What's the difference between a fiddle and violin? "One you play the strings. The other you play the strangs," she says.
Miss Kentucky Ramsey Carpenter played the national anthem on her fiddle before Kentucky's home opener Aug. 30 at Commonwealth Stadium. What's the difference between a fiddle and violin? "One you play the strings. The other you play the strangs," she says. Herald-Leader

Gone are the days when Ramsey Carpenter tossed her fiddle, a ball gown and a bathing suit in the back of her five-speed Ford Escort and headed off to compete in beauty pageants.

Those far-flung "prelims," the stepping stones to Miss Kentucky, were strictly DIY affairs.

But after putting a few miles on her Ford, the former Miss My Old Kentucky Home is now Miss Kentucky, and one of the perks of the job is a shiny white Lexus to zip around the commonwealth.

This week, she is in Atlantic City to compete for the Miss America title with a team at her disposal including a hair and makeup artist, a personal trainer and a current affairs coach. She has loaded up her four suitcases and been fitted for her own couture gown by the pageant's official eveningwear designer, Tony Bowls.

Like her predecessors, Carpenter carries her crown in its own walnut box with a golden emblem on the side.

But for this Miss Kentucky, her platform is very personal.

As a person diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, her goal is educating people about the disease.

Before she received her title, Carpenter had been working as spokeswoman for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

"Ramsey has been extraordinarily supportive of the MS movement and the work of the society," said Arney Rosenblat, associate vice president of public affairs. "She is deeply engaged with our Kentucky-Southeast Indiana Chapter and has raised funds to help end MS through such events as Bike MS and Walk MS. She has also spoken at a number of chapter events."

It is work she already plans to continue. After the Miss America finals Sept. 14, Carpenter is booked to speak at a national gathering of neurologists in Boston for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

"I am not looking for pity," said Carpenter, who keeps her symptoms at bay with medication. "I just want to help people understand the disease."

It may have been her unexpected diagnosis and a tough initial recovery that helped give her a sense of calm that she thinks helped her win the Miss Kentucky crown.

It was finals week at University of Kentucky in 2010 when Carpenter experienced her first symptoms. She had tingling in her hands and feet that would work its way up her legs. She was also fatigued, confused and short-tempered. Stress seemed to be the culprit, and the symptoms abated. But on Aug. 13 that year — on her grandfather's birthday — she went to pick up her fiddle and she couldn't play. Soon after she developed a problem in her foot that made it difficult to walk.

After a week of multiple tests in the hospital she was diagnosed with MS. She was 19. She has since learned that most women are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 30.

She gives herself injections and has been symptom-free since her initial diagnosis.

But facing such a severe health challenge has helped her find a new focus. During the Miss Kentucky pageant, she tried to concentrate on enjoying each moment. This was her last year to compete. At 23, the University of Kentucky graduate was getting ready to age out of the competition.

Jamie Breeding, executive director of the Miss Kentucky pageant, said he and other judges noted how relaxed Carpenter was. And, he said, she has matured over the years into being "very, very comfortable in who she is." That naturalness is part of her charm.

But, he said, charm is only one of Carpenter's tools. The young woman has many facets to her character. Breeding said he's still learning more about her since she was crowned. For instance, he wasn't aware until recently that Carpenter swam competitively and worked as an athletic trainer for UK before switching her major to special education.

Breeding, who has been involved in pageants for 30 years, said every Miss Kentucky is a special young woman. But, he said, there is something about Carpenter.

"I do think there is something real special about her," he said. "You can't put your finger on it. You almost just sense it and feel it and know it."

He expects her to do well in the Miss America competition.

Carpenter was not a toddler in a tiara, but she has been around the pageant world for a while. She won her first title, Miss Ohio County Fair, in high school. She was crowned Miss Kentucky in July in her fourth, and what would have been her final, time in the Miss Kentucky competition.

She seems to delight in every aspect of her new title. Eyes twinkling, she calculates that she is the only contestant to be playing either fiddle or violin in this year's talent competition. She will play the same medley of Sally Good'n and Orange Blossom Special that helped her secure the Miss Kentucky crown. She is ready for the question: What's the difference between violin and fiddle?

"One you play the strings," she said, "the other you play the strangs," drawing out the last word just a beat for comic effect and grinning broadly at her own joke.

Growing up in Hartford — "the home of 2,000 happy people and a few soreheads," she offers brightly — she took to pageants because the older girls she saw competing looked like they were having so much fun.

She exudes a sense of joy at winning the Miss Kentucky competition and takes her position as a role model seriously. She has a mental checklist of things that she would never do while wearing the crown because they would seem disrespectful.

Carpenter seems equally open to the possibility of some yet unknown opportunities brought about by the Miss America competition and returning to her hometown in Ohio County to work as a special education teacher. She talks about being interested in broadcasting, but also says the school district is holding her job open until her pageant duties are complete.

She tries not to worry about the arc of her disease, which can, in the long run, be debilitating. She also tries not to waste too much energy thinking about how she'll fare against the other 52 Miss America contestants.

That's not to say she isn't doing what she can to prepare. She's eating lots of grilled chicken and salads and studying the difference between Hamas and ISIS to prepare for those interview questions, which can range from your opinion of the Affordable Care Act to the state of racism in America to opinions about the current state of the Middle East.

But mostly, she's enjoying the ride, and not just the sweet Lexus she gets to drive for a year. She is trying to stay in tune with every moment of an experience she will never have again.

"I think about here and now," she said. "Right now is really good."