Out-Foxing Parkinson's Disease
It began one afternoon in 1991, while he was working on the set of a Hollywood movie. The little finger of his left hand started to twitch.
At first, the busy actor paid little heed -- how serious could such a minor symptom be? But as the months passed, the spasms attacked other muscles. Tremors in his legs, arms and hips became more marked. Alarmed, Michael J. Fox talked with his family doctor, then took a series of tests. The results were clear. All at once, the popular ex-star of NBC's "Family Ties" found himself facing a profound threat to his health.
Mr. Fox had Parkinson's disease, a chronic and progressive illness in which certain nerve cells, or neurons, die or become impaired. Normally, these neurons produce the neurotransmitting chemical dopamine. Due to the fact that dopamine produces inhibition in selective neuron cells of the brain, the loss of dopamine causes the nerve cells to fire out of control, leaving patients unable to direct or control their movement in a normal manner. Early symptoms are subtle and occur gradually. More than 1 million Americans have Parkinson's, and many wind up unable to walk, talk or care for themselves.
The four primary symptoms of Parkinson's are tremor or trembling in the hands, arms, legs, jaw and face; rigidity or stiffness of the limbs and trunk; slowness of movement (called bradykinesia); and unstable posture or impaired balance and coordination. Patients may also have difficulty walking, talking or completing other simple tasks. A variety of medications provide dramatic relief from the symptoms, but no drug can stop the progression of the disease.
Parkinson's usually is not inherited.
An overwhelming response
Mr. Fox, also known for movie roles in "Back to the Future" (1985) and two sequels, didn't want to accept the verdict. He told his story to a U.S. Senate subcommittee at hearings on research funding for the disease.
"I'd hidden my symptoms very well, through increasing amounts of medication, through surgery and by employing the hundreds of little tricks and techniques a person with Parkinson's learns [in order] to mask his or her condition for as long as possible," he told senators. "But when I did share my story, the response was overwhelming, humbling and deeply inspiring. I heard from thousands of Americans affected by Parkinson's. They spoke of pain, frustration, fear and hope. Always hope!"
Mr. Fox went public in a 1998 interview with People magazine. Ever since, he's been a forceful crusader in the fight to find a cure. He devotes himself to fund raising and lobbying for his Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research (www.michaeljfox.org). He has helped raise several million dollars to study the disease.
Married to "Family Ties" co-star Tracy Pollan and the father of four, Mr. Fox says living with Parkinson's has taught him some valuable lessons about endurance and "keeping your sense of humor."
Taking care of himself
"It's made me stronger," says Mr. Fox, "and a million times wiser. I'm also more compassionate, because I've realized that I'm vulnerable -- no matter how many acting awards I'm given."
Mr. Fox is also passionate about teaching people to cope with the ailment, as he has. "I'm doing just fine these days," he says. "I'm in the care of an outstanding neurologist, and I'm doing everything I can to stay on top of my condition, day in and day out.
"I eat properly, get plenty of rest and take all of my medications on schedule. At the same time, I'm feeling more hopeful than ever about the chances of finding a cure. We're making gains in our understanding of the disease, and I'm convinced that we can defeat Parkinson's within the next decade -- so millions of people around the world will be spared needless suffering."
Born in Canada, Mr. Fox was a high school dropout when he came to Los Angeles at age 18. Yet he was determined to become a television star. Though just 5 foot 4, he had some huge assets. He radiated warmth and charisma, aided by a bright smile and sharp blue eyes.
After winning several bit parts, he landed the role of Alex P. Keaton in "Family Ties" in 1982. During the next seven years, he would snag three Emmys and a Golden Globe.
After filming the "Back to the Future" trilogy in the mid-1980s, he "took a vacation" from TV -- only to launch another hugely successful series, "Spin City," a few years later. "Spin City" won acclaim (and another Emmy for Mr. Fox) before he retired from the show in January 2000.
These days, Michael J. Fox is savoring life as never before. He's also working hard to achieve his goal: Finding a cure by 2010.
"I'm absolutely determined to do everything I can to help eradicate the disease," he says. Why? It's simple. "When I reach my 50s," says Mr. Fox, "I want to be dancing at my children's weddings!"