When Rachael Lieberman started to noticed her vision in her right eye was getting blurrier than usual while working as a photo editor for Entertainment Weekly, she initially blamed it on something being wrong with her contacts. But as her sight continually got worse as the days passed, she increasingly became worried.
“The third day, I think I changed my self-diagnosis to pink eye, and the vision was gradually getting worse,” Lieberman, 36, tells PEOPLE of the ordeal 11 years ago. “On the fourth day, I went to work, and it was worse. The headache was bad, and the eye itself was painful to move.”
After visiting a series of doctors, she visited a neurologist in New York who immediately sent her to a hospital, where she was placed on an IV treatment of steroids—which helped restore her vision for a couple of weeks until the impairment spread to both eyes. After a series of tests over the course of a few months, Lieberman finally had a diagnosis.
“I went for a new scan, an MRI scan, and that’s when I got a concrete diagnosis of it being multiple sclerosis,” she says. “It was mixed emotion because, on one hand, you want an answer. On the other hand, that’s not the answer you want.”
MS is an unpredictable disease that affects the central nervous system and disrupts the communication between the brain and the rest of the body, according to the National Library of Medicine. Usually, the first symptoms that appear are blurry or double vision, color distortion or blindness in one eye.
Most people begin to develop signs of the disease between the ages of 20 and 40. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates there are more than 2 million people around the world with the disease.
In the 11 years since her symptoms first appeared, Lieberman has sought treatment from a Los Angeles neurologist after moving from New York to the west coast, and has changed her diet to be gluten- and dairy-free. Today, she says her health and vision are in great shape, and she has been relatively symptom-free for a number of years.
Not long after finding out Lieberman had MS, a group of her high school friends began fundraising to raise money for research, which inspired Lieberman to do her part to help others with the disease as well.
“I’ve taken it over and it’s become a passion of mine, to fundraise and hopefully better the lives of those of us suffering, as well as find a cure,” she says.
Lieberman has put on a number of charitable events to raise money for research and doctors through the years, and she is currently organizing a silent auction, called SENSE, in association with the Lucie Foundation, to benefit the neurology department at UCLA. The university is looking to build a center to provide a multidisciplinary approach to the care and treatment of MS patients.
The silent auction will feature pictures from a variety of photographers themed around sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. The pictures—which feature celebrities such as Beyoncé, Zach Galifianakis, Angelina Jolie, and A$AP Rocky—are now available to view and purchase online until April 25, when there will be a ticketed event at FLOOD Gallery in Los Angeles.
Lieberman says she wants to do her best to improve the lives of others. “If putting on an event to raise funds or raise awareness can better the lives of other people living with this,” she says, “that would be awesome.”