by Amanda Blinkhorn
EIGHTY-FIVE thousand people in the UK have multiple sclerosis, and 50 more are diagnosed every week. Now they have a new champion - Michael O'Donovan, a north London boy who gave up a high-flying career with multinational drugs company GlaxoSmithKline to come home to Edgware Road to become the new chief executive of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
He is 55, and until last week was flying round the world, but he has no regrets about trading in the Toyota Supra for a more practical Toyota Rav, or the corporate salary for one which is "significantly" smaller.
But while his new job may not be as high-flying, it has brought him into contact with celebrities such as Zoe Ball, Anthea Turner, Mel C, Jay Kay, Frank Skinner and Sara Cox, all of whom will be helping to promote MS Week next week.
Mr O'Donovan first came into close contact with MS in 1994 when his son, Chris, then 17, was diagnosed with the disease.
"It was eight years ago next week," he explains, revealing, clearly, that time may be a great healer but it does nothing to dim his memory of hearing the neurologist's diagnosis. Chris was so ill at the time he was unable to sit his A-levels.
"The diagnosis was almost in a way a relief," says Mr O'Donovan. "At least then we knew what it was, we had something we could focus on." And the first thing his son's neurologist advised them to do was to get in touch with the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
He and his wife, Susan, turned to the society for advice and friendship over the years, but apart from being avid fundraisers Mr O'Donovan had no plans to become more actively involved until he was invited to be a trustee a few years ago. "There was always someone at the end of the phone who was never too busy to listen," he says. They were never too busy to nudge either – a few months ago after the society had made a fruitless search to replace the retiring chief executive, a friend in the society suggested Mr O'Donovan apply for the job.
"I thought about it for a few days and I really couldn't think of a good reason not to," he says. But he quashes any suggestion that he's doing anything particularly high-minded. "No no no, this is a real job," he says. His previous job was about selling a product; this is about selling information.
And both, ultimately, are about getting results. Which is why, last Monday morning, Mr O'Donovan rolled up for work at the MS Society's headquarters in Edgware Road, Cricklewood, to begin his first day as chief executive. It's his first return to north London since he left Mill Hill to go to Durham University and, three days in, he's glad to be back.
So far, he says, it's been fun, although after just three days the buck has already made a couple of unscheduled stops on his desk. "I've been told once or twice, 'look it's up to you just make a decision!'"
He has arrived just in time for the beginning of MS Week, the national fundraising drive he hopes will bring in some of the cash needed to provide the research, the specialist nurses and the carers on whom so many thousands of people in the country rely to get through the day.
Apart from the small matter of raising £1 million during the week, Mr O'Donovan wants to raise the profile of the society, particularly among the young and newly-diagnosed, and support the magnificent work of the specialist MS nurses.
Thanks to pressure from the MS Society the nurses are currently helping neurologists assess those who may benefit from beta interferons and glatiramer acetate, drugs that can dramatically relieve some of the symptoms of MS.
Unfortunately, only a relatively small proportion of those with MS can be helped with such drugs, says Mr O'Donovan. "But there are between eight and 10,000 people who could benefit – but at the moment only about 1,500 have been assessed."
Part of the problem is a huge shortage of neurologists.
"Britain has the lowest rate of neurologists per head of population in Western Europe," says Mr O'Donovan.
If you want to support MS Week there will be street collections in Camden High Street and an auction of new and nearly-new goods at the Charlie Ratchford Centre in Belmont Street, Camden Town, next Thursday from 7pm to 9pm.
Alternatively, you could follow the example of Zoe Ball, Anthea Turner, Mel C and all those other personalities, and bake a cake and invite your friends to donate £1 to the MS Society in return for a cuppa and a slice of something fabulous.
For more details call Sue Weston on 020-7485 9891 or click on www.mssociety.org.uk