Kathleen Klassen can, and does, wear a mask while seated, at least until her heat sensitivity kicks in; then she has to remove it. Photo by Terry Farrell

Kathleen Klassen can, and does, wear a mask while seated, at least until her heat sensitivity kicks in; then she has to remove it. Photo by Terry Farrell

Life unmasked: woman who can’t wear a mask feels unfairly judged

Kathleen Klassen’s medical condition makes wearing a mask impossible

Black Creek resident Kathleen Klassen would wear a mask if she could, but she is one of the many British Columbians whose medical condition prevents mask-wearing.

She wants the community to know it’s not by choice.

Klassen has primary progressive multiple sclerosis (PPMS). As defined by the National MS Society, multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.

In Klassen’s case, any visual interference with her feet causes immediate vertigo and nausea. Even the slightest diversion, such as seeing a mask where her nose should be, or the slight blur of a see-through shield, triggers her symptoms.

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“For some odd reason, my brain needs to be able to clearly see my feet in order for mobility to occur,” she explained. “For example, I can’t walk in tall grass, or snow that covers my feet. Doing so makes me extremely dizzy, and also causes my body to simply freeze in one spot so that I don’t fall over.

“As a result of my brand of MS, wearing a face mask is out of the question. I am also heat sensitive, and so masks and face shields can also cause me to get too warm, which in turn causes nausea and instability.”

She can, and does, wear a mask while seated, at least until her heat sensitivity kicks in; then she has to remove it.

Klassen carries a doctor’s note with her at all times, to gain entry into businesses or public spaces where masks are mandated. While the note is generally accepted by staff at such locations, it’s the public that reacts in a cruel fashion.

“Nobody asks to see the note,” said Klassen. “I just get glares, side looks of derision and even obvious disdain for my maskless state. I’ve even been yelled and sworn at for getting too close.”

She said one episode, in particular, frightened her to the point she will not visit that business again during the pandemic.

“[I was approached by] a very angry masked older gentleman who assumed I was a horrible person. He would not allow me to apologize, and only angrily retorted that I was not sorry… even though I attempted to assure him that I was.”

Klassen said she would gladly wear an identifying lanyard or something similar – something from official sources that people would recognize as a mask exemption for medical reasons – but currently there is nothing of the sort available.

“Perhaps a lanyard that could be worn that simply states “Face Mask Exempt”… which could only be obtained with a doctor’s note, just like handicapped placards are awarded,” said Klassen. “It won’t stop all the angry people from being angry… but perhaps it would allow me to walk into a store or public place with less fear that I will be misunderstood, or yelled at simply because my disability precludes me from wearing a face mask or face shield.”

North Island medical health officer, Dr. Charmaine Enns, sympathizes with Klassen’s case and says her situation is not unique.

“There are a number of different reasons why someone will not or can not wear a mask,” said Enns. “However, most of the population now is wearing masks, especially indoors so it is important that we not stigmatize or shame those who are not wearing masks. Many will have a legitimate reason.”

Klassen understands the stigma all too well, and admits even she struggles when seeing others without masks on.

“When I see a young person not wearing a mask, even my pre-conceived notion is ‘wow, they don’t care about this pandemic. They think it’s a hoax.’ Then I stop and think, hey wait a minute; maybe they have a legitimate reason for not wearing a mask,” she said. “So I get why people would think that about me.”

Most of all, Klassen wants people to take Dr. Bonnie Henry’s mantra to heart.

“I know it is often said by Dr. Bonnie Henry to ‘Be Kind.’ I’m afraid that message is not reaching some folks, and I am becoming tired of keeping my head down, avoiding eye contact with those wearing masks, simply because I cannot participate with such things,” said Klassen.

“I care deeply about others. I want to be able to smile at strangers without them thinking I’m just being cocky and arrogant. I care about your health, and I never want to be considered to be one who doesn’t take this pandemic seriously.”

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Kathleen Klassen with her doctor’s certificate, stating an exemption to mask-wearing, for medical reasons. Photo by Terry Farrell

Kathleen Klassen with her doctor’s certificate, stating an exemption to mask-wearing, for medical reasons. Photo by Terry Farrell

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